Coughy Talk

When Violetta's Tubercular Troubles Become Contagious

Tuesday, May 15, 2012 - 11:00 AM

The problem of audiences coughing during musical performances is nothing to sneeze at. In a flurry of end-of-season performances in three of New York’s major halls, I had the chance to experience a range of expectoration far beyond anything I would have anticipated or desired. I have come to the conclusion that some people in certain settings will cough for reasons that have nothing to do with what some doctors refer to as "frictional stress of the airways."

There is a big difference between the sudden abrupt outburst that comes when one person swallows the wrong way or perhaps becomes short of breath and the rampant hacking that has become the unfortunate norm every time there is a brief pause in the music. The former is unfortunate for all involved but requires a sense of compassionate understanding rather than a huffy glare that says "how dare you disturb my enjoyment!” The latter is just bad behavior and we can do better.

Sympathy for a Cougher

Recently I was at one of the Ring cycle operas. The quiet, well-behaved audience listened attentively—there was much to admire in the music-making. Then, without warning, a woman in the middle of a row began to valiantly struggle to suppress a cough that may have come from a tickle in the throat or swallowing wrong. She covered her mouth with her hands, then with a sleeve, then with a scarf, but nothing would help. She fumbled in her purse to find a lozenge and did her best to open it noiselessly, but to no avail. It was in crinkly clear wrapping so she stopped trying to open it as evidently she did not want to make even more noise.

A look of panic came over her as she calculated the disturbance she was causing as opposed to the trouble she would create by stepping over nine people to reach the aisle and rush out of the auditorium. She decided to stay put. The cough turned into gasps and people nearby became concerned for her health. Though her coughing was indeed disruptive, it was a genuine problem and not one born of inconsiderate behavior. With Wagner, though, even the lyrical passages have enough volume in the orchestra that most people heard none of her coughs.

In the same period I attended The Makropulos Case, Billy Budd and La Traviata. In the Janacek opera, the audience was so transfixed by Karita Mattila’s tour-de-force performance that they did not think to cough. The very welcome return of the old John Dexter production of the Britten opera plus the knowledgeable audience that came to hear it meant that coughs were few and they were stifled. Sometimes people cough when they are bored, but these performances were so riveting that no one could possibly have been bored.

Sympathetic Coughing?

La Traviata is another matter, wonderful though it is as an opera. No work in the repertory seems to inspire more hacking than this one, not even La Bohéme, another story about a young woman coughing herself into an early grave. There seems to be a great deal of sympathetic coughing among audiences, particularly at La Traviata, by which I mean that people who hear and witness a cough then start coughing as well. It is akin to that mysterious chain reaction that one yawn can engender. 

What bothers me is that there are thousands, millions of people in daily life who give voice to their yawns, coughs and sneezes, compounding the disturbance they create. Most of these seem to be at the performances of La Traviata I attend, as well as orchestral concerts, vocal recitals, solo piano pieces and chamber music. A silent yawn is one thing, but when someone adds a downward progression of sound punctuated with an “uh,” then they are not being considerate.

There is a big difference between a quick sneeze, or even a series of them, and someone who vocalizes the process with some version of “ahh-ahh-Ahh Choo!” Similarly, too many people don’t realize that they vocalize their coughing  so that it becomes “Uh-huh. Uh-huh, uh-Huhh!” Next time you hear someone coughing extravagantly, pay close attention and you will hear what I mean. When you have 30 Violettas in an opera audience, all giving words to their coughs, it is almost a lost cause.

No Sympathy at the Symphony

On May 5 I attended an exciting performance at the New York Philharmonic, led by its music director Alan Gilbert. The program featured the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Second Piano Concerto, powerfully rendered by Yefim Bronfman. It was preceded by Dvorak’s rollicking Carnival Overture and followed by Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.

Maybe it was the breathless account of the Dvorak followed by the breathtaking performance of the Lindberg, but something happened that night to make the second half of the program seem as if Avery Fisher Hall were a pulmonary intensive care unit. When the symphony’s first movement ended, a volley of coughs erupted as one person coughed and then, like a pack of wolves in a forest, hundreds of other coughers responded in kind. Soon the whole theater quaked with loud coughs that only subsided when Alan Gilbert raised his arms high to ready the orchestra for the second movement.

Nine minutes later, Gilbert raised his arms to lead the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s symphony. This music requires the string section to play pizzicato in a way that is incredibly engaging and terribly difficult (here is a performance by Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony that will give you a sense of what is involved). Before maestro Gilbert could give the downbeat, the audience erupted in a cacophony that was as percussive as it was pertussive. Gilbert turned to the audience and burst out laughing. It was as if the audience was intentionally piling on the coughing sounds and he had no other way to respond. Unless a canister of gas has been tossed into the auditorium, there is no reason why at least 500 people suddenly must cough after not having coughed for the previous nine minutes. Can any readers explain this to me please?

Carnegie Hall is a venue that has tried to address this problem with gentility and marketing savvy. I recently attended three excellent piano recitals (Mitsuko Uchida, Garrick Ohlsson, Louis Lortie) and there were smatterings of coughs in pauses between sonata movements. I think the coughs were limited by the respectful sophistication of the audience but also by the fact that Carnegie Hall offers Ricola cough drops in the lobby. They come in many flavors, including the original square herbal lozenge as well as the smaller oval drops in various flavors. My favorite is sage, which appears very rarely.

I mention the Ricola brand for a particular reason: it is wrapped in wax paper and twisted at both ends like a candy. If the lozenge is fresh and you open the wrapper by giving it quick tugs at either end, it will unfurl yet make no noise. An older, slightly sticky lozenge is not too noisy either. This is intelligent design. Even for Carnegie concertgoers who do not have a cough, the presence of these drops serves as a cautionary example that coughing should be suppressed whenever possible and these drops are one way to do it.

Here is advice from a certain Dr. Artour Rakhmitov who tells you how to stop coughing if you sit up straight, close your mouth and pinch your nose in the way he instructs. My advice is to consult your medical professional first and then go to a musical performance where the only sound you will make is rousing applause.

Photos: Myrtò Papatanasiu as Violetta, dying in Act III of 'La traviata' at Teatro dell'Opera © 2009 Corrado Maria Falsini; 2) The cough drops at Carnegie Hall


More in:

Comments [15]

RP from NYC

I was in the midst of a wonderful interpretation of Ivan Fischer's Brahms Symphony last Sunday when I felt a dreadful tickle in my throat and could not prevent myself from coughing AND sneezing. Considering that I had put a Ricola in my mouth before I went back into the hall after intermission to make sure I would not cough.. this was quite a surprise. However, I have often noticed through the years that when the air conditioning comes on people inevitably cough. Therefore , the only conclusion I can come to is that the air conditioning units are never properly cleaned ... leaving all sorts of unseen filth in the air.

Hey, people cough.... not always on purpose. It's awful for the audience and embarrassing for the cougher.

Jan. 22 2015 06:13 PM
Fern Berman from Connecticut

Bravo Fred. While I have sympathy for someone coughing...if they are sick they should NOT be at the opera; or on a bus; or anywhere someone can catch what they might have. Getting ill while at a cultural event is not good manners by the person who is sick and can be sickening to those around them.

Dec. 02 2013 08:55 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Dframa Institute, Boonton, NJ

When I was a student at both Juilliard and Columbia University, we received Score Desk seats for a dollar at seats with a desk on both SIDES and behind all the other seats, at the Family Circle, the top balcony at the old Met.
Today we should have separate areas of the opera houses and concert halls and arenas where ONLY Smartphones, texting and twittering are permitted. Like smokers, in this respect only, they are not bothered by others twitting, texting, or whatever. I PERSONALLY WOULD NEVER ENGAGE IN SUCH ACTIVITIES IN THOSE VENUES.
As an opera composer, Wagnerian heldentenor and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, I can appreciate performances where distractions such as talking and opening snack envelopes are not permitted. SILENCE DURING A PERFORMANCE FROM THE AUDIENCE IS GOLDEN !!!

Jan. 21 2013 12:58 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

"THE PERFORMANCE WAS NOTHING TO SNEEZE AT" is a comment about many overrated productions on Broadway, at the opera, at classical and rock concerts, at TV presentations, at night club acts. I personally have been at so many of these venues that performers dreaded and audiences felt discomforted. Whatever one may claim is the reason for such coughing or sneezing or wheezing, one must admit that currently we are experiencing one ofd the worst allergy seasons. People who have never known of a personal allergy are suddenly experiencing a real outbreak of these allergies. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer: "Shakespeare" & "The Political Shakespeare" & the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where professional actors are trained for the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers are coached in the Wagner roles and voice production and dramaturgy techniques. I may be reached by phone at the Institute. My next concert in New York will be on Saturday, June 9th at the YOGA EXPO at the SOHO venue at the New Yorker Hotel. The title of the concert is BRING HIM HOME, with that song from the musical LES MISERABLES, encouraging the return of our armed forces and inspiring hope and love of country with This Land is Your Land, The House I Live In, You'll Never Walk Alone, Climb Ev'ry Mountain, Billy Bigelow's Soliloquy from Carousel, Granada, The House I Live In, Wien, Wien, nur du Allein, The Impossible Dream [The Quest], Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Do You Hear the People Sing?, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, Kumbaya, Earth Anthem and eight other selections.

May. 20 2012 03:14 PM
Harvey Steiman from San Francisco

Human beings naturally, subconsciously, tend follow what their fellow humans do. If you doubt this, next time you are in a group conversation try clasping your hands behind your head. Inevitably, within a few seconds, others in the group will do the same. A psychologist could do a thesis on the conflicting strains of influence at a concert when people cough.

That said, regular concert goers are well aware of the taboo against coughing during the music. This, combined with the above psychological following of cues, accounts in my mind for the spate of coughing during silences between symphonic movements or chamber music. Better cough now so I don't cough while they are playing. You must consciously override the urge to follow suit if someone else does.

On the other hand, that explains Alan Gilbert's perplexity when a coughing spree broke out AFTER he raised his baton. Being out of the norm, it must have felt to him that it was intentional.

Also, when your mind is raptly focused, it suppresses all other physical urges, including coughing. That explains why a great, engaging performance seldom is interrupted by coughing.

At the San Francisco Symphony, when the digital recorders are rolling for the "live" recordings Michael Tilson Thomas leads, he often mentions this to the audience, notes that the audience's silence is part of the performance, and says, "Let's all have a good cough now." It works.

May. 19 2012 01:45 PM

You don't see this as a function of the demographic? Using your three Met examples - or more specifically, which operas will be most likely to attract a geriatric crowd who goes "to get some culture"?

Makropulos Case is a bit too esoteric for the lay listener (this only being because it is 20th century and not written by someone who wrote thirty other "classics", although I do love Janacek).

Wagner is odd - it does have that appeal to a casual listener (Wagner must be good - I know his name!) - although your story about the woman nearly dying to suppress a cough is very wagnerian (I have heard of similar things happening at Bayreuth). Suffer for the art of der Meister.

Traviata will draw in every obnoxious, deaf octogenarian this city has to offer. I remember being at the opening of this current production (1-2 years ago?), and was shocked by the sheer hostility of the crowd. I was assaulted by little old ladies, a man next to me sent bits of phlegm onto the bald head in front of him, and the intermission was an extra 5 minutes to accomodate all of the walkers (I don't think this was intended).

To extend this across the plaza, the NYPhil audience generally consists of the grandparents of the Traviata crowd. Yes, you have a smattering of young folk, but its subscribers generally push the limits of the human body. I think your discussion fo anxiety is correct - there are certain people who just feel like they need something to do. They go to classical music concerts in spite of their apparent hearing loss because they still have some vague memory of it being "art" (it is amazing how hearing aids have managed to stop going off like mini-air raid sirens - the power of technology). Look at Florida.

May. 19 2012 10:59 AM
Fred Plotkin from Bordeaux

The person with asthma faces an additional problem, as do many allergic people: PERFUME. I have had to suppress coughs because someone near me has put on way too much fragrance. I think that a good general rule is to not wear fragrance of any kind when attending performances.

May. 19 2012 07:25 AM
Mike from NYC

I'm amazed by the psychic medical talent on display here. If someone coughs and you can't give them the benefit of the doubt that it wasn't "intentional" or caused by some sub-conscious hostility, you really should be more worried about what's coming out of your own mouth.

May. 17 2012 02:15 PM

I was recently at a performance of Otello at Knoxville Opera. During the first act love duet in a moment of exquisite silence and quiet the spell was broken by tons of coughing. I think that people cough intentionally when they are confronted by emotions or a "tangible" moment in a performance. It's as if they are stunned to be confronted by emotions at a performance, and then the weezing begins. It drives me nuts. I was at a recital by Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau at Spivey Hall in January. It was an exquisite experience, but the man sitting next to me was under the weather. He came prepared with cough drops and his occasional throat clearing was well timed. That is until her encore when she sang, "A Chloris" one my favorite pieces especially when Susan Graham sings it. She was just achieving an angelic pianissimo when the man started convulsing. He was out of cough drops and totally broke the mood. Not only was my experience tainted, but I saw Ms. Graham shake her head as the atmosphere was destroyed. What is there to do.

May. 17 2012 01:56 PM
Stephen Plotkin from Port Washington NY

Hi Fred, I was also in the hall May 5th. The coughing that night, as bad as it was, was normal for a Philharmonic audience. As a member of that audience I was ashamed when Alan Gilbert was compelled reacted. The coughers destroyed the atmosphere the orchestra has created. I can think of no sound explanation for all the coughing. So here is an unsound one. Perhaps some people think coughing is appropriate between movements. They may actually believe they are expected to cough. While that sound nuts, it is possible. And it sounds better than the coughing. All puns intended.

May. 17 2012 02:48 AM
CA from Ossining

The commentators are worse than the coughers. Yes, those annoying people who have to explain the performance to their companion in a not so sotto voce have turned up at the opera, of all places. I have compassion for coughers, none at all for talkers.

The Friends of Music Concerts in Sleepy Hollow NY used to feature large bowls of cough drops at the door and begin with a friendly reminder from the stage to unwrap your cough drops before the performanc begins.

But. on the whole, most classical music and opera audiences are really attentive and polite compared to audiences at other types of performances.

May. 16 2012 03:13 PM

There is also the anticipatory cough; one coughs between movements so as to preclude coughing during the music. BTW, if you let one loose from the top deck at Avery F it gets amplified explosively. And then you must suppress the laughter.

May. 16 2012 12:13 AM
Joseph McCabe from Manhattan

I'm very surprised.I would have thought that as fewer and fewer people smoked,this problem would have diminished greatly.Large amounts of phlegm cover the lung sacs in smokers.As soon as they miss their usual intake,this phlegm becomes dislodged and causes serious coughs.Has anyone ever seen a smoker drink a very hot beverage,like coffee, 1 st thing in the a.m. and begin hacking uncontrollably? Aren't you glad you wrote an essay about this so I could practice being a Pulmonologist?Please be careful with your choice of subjects next time.I'm even more of an aspiring Proctologist!

May. 15 2012 08:12 PM
Brenda Z from New York NY

James Levine once said that coughing was a sign of boredom. I think I would have choked to death during it was, being at home, I fell asleep and damn near missed the quiz.

I confirm that Ricola are the best, but I go a step further and unwrap them before the performance.

May. 15 2012 06:01 PM

Asthma causes a gentle to a severe cough, which prevents me from attending particular public venues. Sometimes, I can control my cough with a cough drop or if the air conditioning is set to COLD, I can make it through presentation. My friends try to get me to go to events with them and I tell them I cannot go. They often act like others can get over themselves. I consider that to be rude behavior.

Unfortunately, today people are not being trained to the rules of society or any rules, for that matter.

May. 15 2012 12:56 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.


About Operavore

Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

Follow Operavore