Boo Whom?

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Hear an example of booing, at La Sonnambula (2009 Met Radio broadcast):

It was supposed to be a night off, a busman’s holiday, and I would wear none of the hats of my opera life -- except that of eager audience member. On Tuesday night, I went with friends and relatives to the Met to see Strauss’s/von Hoffmannsthal’s delicious yet profound Ariadne auf Naxos.

The scheduled cast was excellent: Violeta Urmana (Ariadne), Kathleen Kim (Zerbinetta), Joyce DiDonato (The Composer), Robert Dean Smith (Bacchus) and, in real luxury casting, the veteran British baritone Thomas Allen as the Music Master. I have always respected that the Met has used older artists who do not find a place in casts in many theaters once they reach a certain age. Some great performers may get to the Met quite late (Marilyn Horne was 36; Giuseppe Taddei was 69; Anna Caterina Antonacci at 50 still has not appeared there) but they seem to stay on longer if they have found a place in the hearts of audience members.

The performance was conducted with supreme elegance by Fabio Luisi and the original Elijah Moshinsky production was directed with great humor and precision by Laurie Feldman.

Our group included people who love one another but don’t see each other often. One of us was celebrating a birthday. It was the kind of night in which we were ready to enjoy an opera performance that had all the right elements in place. After the opera we would go eat tasty food, with no concern about staying out late. In fact, we closed Café Fiorello, the haunt opposite Lincoln Center where singers and opera lovers gather after a show because the kitchen is open until 12:30 AM.

At the opera house, we had wonderful seats, much better than I am used to. One of the senior members of Met management sat in front of me during the first act (in Ariadne it is the Prologue and the second part is The Opera), but did not return after. In their place, a couple slipped in as the lights went down. Next to them was a man who slept serenely during the Prologue but more audibly during The Opera. The Houstonian in my group said Texans refer to the sounds the man made as “calling hogs.” 

When the sleeping man did awaken, he turned to chide the couple to his left for their talking. In fact, they spoke endlessly, with the man being quite the know-it-all. They leaned toward one another, laughed a lot, and seemed to take particular interest in the work of Maestro Luisi, who probably heard their talking. The man of the couple was one of those operagoers -- you know the type -- who just has to conduct the entire performance and find fault with the real conductor.

I really wanted to enjoy the performance and tried to get him to sit still. I don’t think they held tickets for those seats, so they had not even paid full price for the right to be annoying. And I certainly had no intention of writing a post for this blog on what was really a night off. 

But I cannot ignore an outburst from another ticketholder, seated in Orchestra F1. He was middle-aged, had a John Waters pencil-thin mustache, wore a wrinkled khaki blazer and trousers so short that his bare legs were visible almost to the knee. All of this is fine, and chacon a son gout, until he belched out a loud ugly Boo! after Kathleen Kim (pictured) sang the show-stopping “Grossmächtige Prinzessin!” one of the most difficult arias in all of opera. While I don’t find booing acceptable in a theater under any circumstances, to do it following something so extremely challenging is what Italians call maleducato. It says more about the booer than the person being booed.

During the curtain calls before an ecstatic audience, this one patron again uttered his single Boo!, sounding more like he wanted to startle someone than to criticize a singer. Most of the crowd was cheering loudly and I hope Ms. Kim did not hear the one naysayer. I know that acclaimed writers and actors chew over a single bad review even when they are showered with raves and awards. I imagine that one boo could unsettle some singers even during a standing ovation.

Some Perspective, Please?

Let’s put this in perspective. Almost no one, including most opera singers, can sing “Grossmächtige Prinzessin!” Even fewer people can sing it well enough to be in a cast at the Met. Artists such as Kathleen Battle and Diana Damrau made their mark early on and then excelled at it, and I am sure Ms. Kim will be recalled for her skill as well. If I am unhappy with something in a theater, I simply do not applaud. If I really don’t care for something, I have been known to fold my arms. But I think it is highly maleducato to boo. 

In Italy, by the way, they do not only boo but they also often whistle instead. In fact, Italian artists are often surprised in the United States to hear whistles from happy audiences. If you go to La Scala and like what you hear, do not whistle! (See below.)

If you don’t like a musician’s performance, remember that they are human and are bringing their bodies, emotions and energy to what they do. We are not machines and everyone has a bad night. Applaud people for doing their best, or don’t applaud at all. If you do not like a new production of an opera, don’t boo the director, designers and choreographer. Remember that someone hired them and approved of their concept, so the creators of a production are not fully to blame. 

For that matter, don’t boo the person who hired the production team. There are other, more civil ways to express your dissatisfaction, whether by writing a letter, choosing not to buy tickets or to stop making contributions to an arts institution. To which I say, be strong but kind in the expression of your opinions, do not get personal or catty (you undermine yourself and your ideas) and try to be specific.

Sir Rudolf Bing, who was General Manager of the Met from 1950 to 1972, had a very dry wit. Even those who found him autocratic or aloof nonetheless respected him highly. It is customary for anyone who speaks of him to refer to him as Mr. Bing even four decades after he retired and quite a few years since his death. When Mr. Bing received a particularly cranky letter from a subscriber, he did not always address the specific issues raised but simply wrote back saying, “Thank you for your letter to the Metropolitan Opera. I can assure you that it will receive the attention it deserves.”

At times, some colleagues and I are in situations in which we do not want to hurt the feelings of performers who did their best. When people ask me what I thought, I often say “I love this opera.” I have heard other people say to singers, “No one sings Puccini like you do!” or “You really have a special way with Mozart!”

Because I have reached the stage of my career in which I teach opera to singers, students and audiences, I see it as my responsibility to impart what composers and librettists intended, what the history and culture embedded in an opera mean in the context of the work, and I try to suggest how we all, in our own ways, can bring more to an opera performance. To me it is an article of faith that we come prepared to love it and applaud those rare individuals who work in this art form who face great challenges to keep opera vibrant and compelling. Life is too short to be negative about something that, in most every way, is so incredibly rewarding.

Save your activism and indignation for politicians and corporations -- often in cahoots -- who really do us harm and get away with it because the people will not stand up for what is right. If you don’t agree with me, watch a performance of Fidelio and then write to your senator and congressman.

Do you believe that booing is acceptable at the opera? Why or why not? Leave a comment below.