Is This Seat Taken?

Thursday, December 22, 2011 - 02:28 PM

Lately, I've noticed something peculiar at various houses: While there exists a time-honored tradition of trading up your family circle or balcony seat for some premier empties down in the orchestra, more people seem to be taking umbrage at these opportunists. 

Yet the funny thing is, it has nothing to do with a budget-conscious culturephile poaching a seat that they mistakenly believed to be empty only to find it was in fact occupied—a common occurrence and occupational hazard in this case. Rather, these are people like a trio of students who, at Ian Bostridge's Carnegie Hall recital, took bona fide empty seats at intermission, only to prompt the moral outrage of a fellow audience member.

At the Met, a physical fight almost broke out between a man trying to grab a free orchestra seat and a man in an adjoining seat who had evidently been happy to use the spare as an ersatz coat rack. It all reminded me of the exchange between Madeline Kahn and Barbara Streisand in What’s Up, Doc? in which Kahn seethes “Don’t you know the meaning of propriety?" Streisand flippantly replies (carrot in hand): “Propriety; noun: conformity to established standards of behavior or manner, suitability, rightness, or justice. See ‘etiquette.’”

These instances have also led me to ponder the topic of seating, particularly as we are now in one of the busiest travel periods of the year and countless couples and families encounter similar issues when it comes to asking a stranger to switch seats on a plane or train. As a student, I had no compunction with moving from K2 down to base camp at intermission. Similarly, I don’t have an issue now with switching my seat on a plane if we’ve taken off and there’s a free row across the aisle.

Once a ship has sailed, the passengers are on board for the ride and while there may be some running for the nearest lifeboat at intermission (a boon for those in standing room), it’s much harder to get in than it is to get out. When I ushered at the former New York State Theater, there was a very simple rule: ticketholders could switch seats at intermission within their own seating area. Moreover, the house would occasionally re-seat ticket holders of their own volition—the Met went so far as to upgrade some of its ticket-holders to better seats after an unforeseen HD element left some seats with obstructed views.

On the other hand, I can see how frustrating it may be for someone to pay the full $350 for a ticket only to find that someone who bought a $27 seat land in an adjoining row. Architecture being what it is, not all seats are created equal—or, in an Orwellian sense, some seats are more equal than others. This debate also leads to other arguments, chief among them: Does buying a ticket entitle one to ownership of said seat for the duration of the performance? Does becoming a subscriber guarantee a person the ownership of their seat for the duration of the season? And does buying a ticket for one seat preclude an audience member from scouting out other prospects?

What the Hall Rules Say -- Or Don't

The backs of tickets, a tacit user agreement, are somewhat vague on this matter: Lincoln Center’s language begins by stating: “This ticket is a revocable license to attend the event on the front of the ticket. Lincoln Center reserves the right to revoke the license, to refuse admission or eject any person for violation of the law or the terms or conditions hereof…” Both BAM and the David H. Koch Theater take the ticket-as-a-license copy further to deem it “a personal license” and non-transferable. Carnegie Hall, the Met and the New York Philharmonic make no mention of the ticket being a license, personal or otherwise, and only Carnegie Hall's mentions the clause that management may refuse admission or request a ticket-holder to leave at any time. Perhaps the strongest language towards the idea of trading up, however, is in the idea of a ticket being “non-transferable” (though where that leaves people who give tickets they are unable to use to friends or the like is equally unclear).

And before audiences even enter the equation, there are seats that are accounted for, that “belong” to directors, designers and production team members who set up in the middle of the auditorium at rehearsal tables to see a performance to fruition. "The value of a seat in the orchestra stalls may start out at $500, but at 8:00 pm curtain it immediately drops to $0,” says director Thaddeus Strassberger, who advocates for an “equitable yield” developed for opera house and concert hall box offices. “I know you can't devalue the product by constantly 'dumping' remaining tickets at the last minute, and that practice could alienate a core subscriber base. But there must be a way to get as many eager eyes and ears into the opera house as possible, whilst maximizing the revenue potential.”

Strassberger himself has a unique insight into seating ownership. As part of his direction for Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots at Bard College’s Summerscape in 2009, the first intermission included a group of Protestant chorus members picnicking in the auditorium of the Fischer Center. It was a nod to the opera’s own question of occupation with the longstanding Catholics and interloping Huguenots battling it out for Paris.

"I wanted very much not to turn the episode into something political, but rather emotional: What does it feel like to be occupied and was there a way to find a sympathy for the group of people who might otherwise be considered the villains in the opera?… [For an audience], from the moment your credit card is charged, you have a kind of presumed tenancy, if not ownership, of an armchair,” Strassberger explains. The audience was then confronted with squatters in their seats, squatters who brought illicit food and beverages into the auditorium, allowed their children to run amok in the aisles and break into spontaneous prayer as the house lights dimmed.

It was a fascinating social experiment that yielded a range of reactions. "I spoke to several patrons and they were genuinely upset and had felt a lot of animosity towards the Huguenots,” says Strassberger. “I even heard one man at the second performance tell two of them to 'F--- off! This is my seat!' He clearly believed that his peaceful enjoyment of an opera was being diminished by the arrival of the others, who were clearly less worthy than he was.”

So what exactly does the cost of admission get us? Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s the seat we selected at the box office or online. Sometimes we do better, occasionally we fare worse. At a production of Satyagraha, my under-the-weather husband left after the second intermission to nurse his sinuses. I came back to find his seat had been immediately taken by an older fellow, who eyed me suspiciously and defensively. I could have said to him, “Excuse me, that’s not your seat,” but otherwise it would just be empty. Taking a page out of Prince Orlofsky’s book, I shrugged, thought “chacun à son goût” and settled in for the last act.

Is there a rightful owner to a theater seat? And does that conflict at all with switching or trading up at intermission? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


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Comments [9]

Flavio Hasselmann from Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

No harm done...enjoy your new seat!

Jul. 26 2012 11:40 AM
Alonso Alegria from Lima, Peru

In the fall of 1963 I was a junior at Yale College, newly arrived from Peru and totally aghast with all manner of things, including the New Haven Symphony and the possibilty of studying playwriting with the great and wonderful John Gassner. My very cheap seat for the Symphony was right behind a Woolsey Hall column, completely blind. During intermission John Gassner himnself came up to me from within the crowd and gave me his ticket. I knew who he was (not viceversa, or course) and was struck so speechless that he felt obliged to convince me it was a good seat. Indeed it was. First row. And from John Gassner´s seat I watched Lorin Maazel conduct Stravinski's 'Petrouchka' from memory, eyes firmly shut all the way. 43 years later, still unforgettable.

Dec. 28 2011 02:55 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

One of the greatest thrills I received as a young conducting student was a performance at Carnegie Hall in the early 80's by the Vienna Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein on the podium. The program was Haydn's Symphony No. 88 and Beethoven's Eroica. There was such an ovation after the Haydn that Bernstein encored with the Finale and other than giving the downbeat, stood motionless throughout - great theater but I digress. I scouted out an empty seat from the rear balcony - 3rd row, dead center parquet, so I raced down at intermission and grabbed it. What an amazing experience to sit so close and witness the interaction between conductor and orchestra! The musicians, most seeming to play from memory, always watching Bernstein, smiling, gesturing, and moving as one. Once, Bernstein stomped his foot and a large cloud of dust arose from the podium - a memorable sight a poor college student would have never seen from the nose bleed seats.

Dec. 24 2011 11:06 PM
Devon from Great Cishlll

Whe a business class seat is unsold on a flight, someone from coach gets upgraded. I've never seen anyone complain about this, an it actually makes the upgrade recipient more likely to fly that airline again. Why can't we do that at the opera house? If there was a way to offer subscribers and long-time supporters upgrades (should they become available) then I think everyone would be a little happier.

Dec. 24 2011 06:46 AM
David from Flushing

If my memory serves me, in the early days of the Met, box holders actually owned the box and even had their own key. They could make their "appearance" at any performance and probably left the box empty most of the time. I recall reading of the great consternation when a box owner allowed their household staff to attend despite all accounts that they behaved better than their "betters."

Dec. 23 2011 09:21 PM
Jamie from Brooklyn NY

When I was in college and right after, I would often ask people departing the orchestra section during the second intermission if we could use their ticket stubs. Only a few turned us down.

Dec. 23 2011 04:44 PM
Liz from NYC

Thank you for addressing this issue. Me, too, don't mind when a person comes sit on an empty seat next me during transmission - IF the person is an enthusiastic music lover. I don't do it myself, but I understand why they do it. However, I started to be more alert about the kind of people who do it. The other day during Rodelinda, I was the only one in a grand tier box. During the intermission, a young what they call "new audience" couple came in talking loudly and sit next to me - overly dressed-up woman was saying "oh we were up there" pointing family circle. I didn't mind at all at first and didn't feel they cheated by self-upgrading their seats. The problem was that the guy was just focused on his mobile in his right hand, constantly stroking her back with his left hand making swishing noises - loud enough to disturb my attention to what was going on in a pit and on the stage musically. Our actions usually rhyme with music even if we are listening unconsciously. This guy didn't seem to have any musical DNA in him and he managed to make noises in a tempo so irrelevant to what was going on. Even silence is a treat listening to a piece like Rodelinda but this couple ruined my enjoyment. I thought about saying something to them about the noise or even talking to an usher to get them back to their original seats during the next intermission. I didn't. Perhaps I should have so those "new audience" could learn how to behave during the performance and we can all enjoy the music together in the future.

Dec. 23 2011 02:45 PM
Fred Plotkin

It is a concern if the person occupying a seat for which a ticket is not held causes a problem for the person who did purchase the adjacent seat. Recently I had two tickets at Avery Fisher Hall and my guest could not attend. Just before the show began a woman jumped into the empty seat. She smelled as if she had been dipped in cheap perfume and I had to suppress coughing during the first half of the program. It ruined the experience for me and, in fact, I actually had purchased the ticket the woman occupied. Occupy Wall Street, yes, but ask before taking a seat that does not belong to you.

Dec. 23 2011 02:07 PM

Many years ago, before the Met had been reincarnated at Lincoln Center, I used to buy standing room at the opera - a little wearying, but I saw so many incredible singers! And the subscribers leaving at intermission were thoughtful enough to give their ticket stubs to many of the standees... it was very kind and very welcome...

Dec. 23 2011 12:19 PM

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