Recently, at a beautiful performance of Les Troyens at the Met, a man and a woman two rows behind me and across the aisle spent much of the 95-minute second act in conversation about the performance and, perhaps, other things I did not hear. They spoke audibly enough that I had to work very hard to not hear them—and I really wanted to hear Susan Graham as Didon.
I turned around often, hoping to catch their attention and to gently, politely indicate that their discussion was not only audible but bothersome. No such luck, as they were leaning close to one another so they would catch every word the other said.
At the intermission I went to kindly ask if they would stop talking during the performance. The woman seemed startled that I would bring this up and said, “First thing, I apologize for talking. But at most we only said a couple of words.” Thus began a surreal exchange:
Fred: “Sorry, but I heard you and saw you both talking for much of the act." The two people in the row behind them nodded in agreement.
Woman: “We did not talk...”
Fred: “Really, you were talking the whole time. I saw you leaning toward one another and talking.” The two people in the row behind them nodded more insistently.
Woman: “We did not talk. We were sharing our feelings.” The two people in the row behind them dropped their jaws and shook their heads in mimed disagreement.
Friends, New Yorkers, Opera Lovers Everywhere...lend me your ears. Do I really need to explain why people should not engage in extended conversations at the opera or at any sort of public event in which you are part of an audience and someone else is doing the singing, speaking or playing? I think not.
Lest you think, those of you reading this in some more civilized place, that such a thing would not transpire where you live, I hasten to tell you that this couple were not New Yorkers or, for that matter, even from the Western Hemisphere. Based on their accent, I have a pretty good idea where they are from. Suffice it to say that they came from somewhere north, east or south of Vienna. The woman then pursued the topic further than I would have wanted: "In my country, we always share our feelings during opera performances.”
“And what country are you from?” I asked. She paused and then realized that such information would be incriminating and might bring scorn upon all of her countrymen. And it was at this point that she stopped talking. She was trying to save face and I felt that my message had come across without creating too much embarrassment. I smiled and extended my hand, which she took and shook with a smile in return.
Unfortunately, at that point, the annoyed couple who sat behind the talkers just had to find out what nation encourages “feelings to be shared” continuously and verbally during opera performances. I tried to explain to them that it was unlikely that there exists such a country and that our request that the “sharing” couple be quiet during the last third of Les Troyens had been understood. The annoyed couple glowered at me for letting the sharers off the hook but did not pursue the matter further.
I offered everyone cough drops (Ricola, which come in wax paper that does not make noise when unwrapped during a performance) and we all popped them in our mouths. These served as a sort of pacifier, or dummy, as they are so cheekily called in parts of Great Britain. All of us were quiet and contemplative for three minutes and an international incident was averted.
Were this an isolated event it would simply be an anecdote and that would be that. However, there really is a serious problem with people talking during performances of opera, theater, music and dance. The same applies, though differently, in cinemas. Talking at the movies is more the province of Americans who shout at the screen when a character is about to open a door behind which trouble lurks. “Don’t go there!” “Look out!” they cry, but the actors do not hear them. Only their fellow audience members do.
I am writing this article on a plane home from Berlin. The previous night, I attended an excellent performance of Der Freischütz at the Staatsoper that I will write about at some point. During the first act, there were four seats empty in the row in front of mine. After the intermission a couple occupied two of the seats and they too had an unquenchable desire to “share.”
These two were “seat jumpers.” I know I have incurred the wrath of numerous readers who don’t agree with me that people should sit in the seats they hold tickets for, but nothing yet has convinced me otherwise. The lady of this couple reeked of perfume so strong that people around her reached for scarves and tissues to muffle their coughing. Gusts of fragrance were emitted every time she leaned over to talk about what was happening on the stage. The gentleman of this couple spent much of his time photographing and recording the performance. He then showed his partner what he had done—while the performance was still transpiring—and she said, most audibly and in English, “Oh good, now we can watch it again when we are home in Toronto.”
“Toh-Ron-Toh!” growled the woman to my right, putting so much force on the letter R as to incite terror in all within earshot. I reached into my pocket and this time produced some very nice German throat lozenges, also thoughtfully wrapped in wax paper. In this case, they were a brand called Em-eukal and their flavor was of anise and fennel. Not as pleasing perhaps as Ricola honey-lemon, but they were quite serious and certainly had a way of focusing the mind. Again, everyone seemed to take a step back from conflict.
When the Play-By-Play Goes too Far
Now that we have made clear that quite a few Europeans and North Americans talk at the opera, let us see what we can do about this problem. My pockets can practically sag with pacifying drops, but that is not the solution. Nor is confrontation. Kindness and gentility are always preferable, but sometimes are not sufficient.
The bigger issue here is that many people have lost the idea of what it means to be part of an audience. Watching a program on television in your home allows you to talk back to it (“I knew you were juicing all along, Lance Armstrong!”) if that is your wish. Or turning to the person next to you at home and saying “I am so disappointed that Lance Armstrong behaved the way he did” is also your right. But if we all verbally “share” in public during performances, we are ruining the experience for others.
Nowadays, even when we are home alone, many of us “share” our reactions to television via social media. When I logged onto Facebook late one night in Germany, I found endless commentary about what was transpiring at the Golden Globe awards. During opera intermissions, people now go to Facebook or Twitter to "share" in so-called real time. I would rather use that occasion to talk to someone actually attending the performance, whether I know that person or it is someone new. Or why not simply reflect on the performance so far without talking to anyone?
I know down to my marrow that our lives are being diminished by what many people consider a need for multitasking. Years ago, as a New Year’s resolution, I decided to kick the habit of multitasking. Better to focus well on one thing and to cultivate one’s concentration. I have discovered a beautiful peacefulness in the quieting of the mind that comes when the chaotic buzz of doing many things at once is minimized. This is a good practice in general, whether for work or in private life. By bringing all of my concentration to an operatic or theatrical performance, I am more actively engaged in all aspects of it: music, drama, design and the possibility for being moved or transformed.
I recently learned that an institution I greatly admire, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, now sells “tweet seats” to certain performances to allow occupants to communicate on Twitter during a performance! That sound you might be hearing is the theater’s namesake, the Irish director Tyrone Guthrie, spinning in his grave. He was a man who created so many marvelous theater and opera productions, including a landmark Peter Grimes with Jon Vickers at the Met. His productions were so engrossing that looking away for even a moment would be inconceivable.
And now a theater is inviting audience members to “tweet” from their seats during a performance?! There are no words.