No Thanks for 'Sharing' at the Opera House

Friday, January 18, 2013 - 01:44 PM

Statler and Waldorf share the stage left balcony box in the Muppet Theater Statler and Waldorf share the stage left balcony box in the Muppet Theater

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.


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Comments [29]

Wow, how right and well written, but Fred is much more patient than I am. I once got up and crossed the aisle to tell a man to stop playing with his keys in his pocket. And talking or rattling should get one banned. Ushers these days pretty much disappear and are little help and rarely around when you need them.
BUT, where I absolutely disagree is what you call seat jumping. Perhaps a certain segment would like everything in New York to be a real estate transaction, but if seats are empty, any polite alert person should be able to sit in them and I have done it at La Scalla, La Fenice and Covent Garden to name just a few. In fact I once did it at the Kennedy Center and suddenly the head usher burst into the box to say I was in Roger Stevens' box (he was like Peter Gelb there) and he could see me from behind the stage! When I asked her so why did he care --she laughed and found me an even better seat! However seat jumping does not permit bad behavior or the occasional necessity to jump up with a whisper of "I'm sorry" if the occupant does arrive. The Bastille and the Palais Garnier have a marvelous method of closing the doors, ushers slip down the aisles telling people to move centerish to fill in their rows and late comers, when permitted seating, are sat in the seat that are thus empty at the ends of rows. This rewards on time people and lovers of the art and punishes late comers. Good reinforcement.
By the way, at the Met in the orchestra the worst offenders in my experience are sadly those who have the rush tickets who arrive with shopping bags, and think their bargain seats allow them to behave like they are on the subway.

Feb. 06 2013 01:41 PM
beth from UWS

this is an easy one.
keep your mouth shut during a performance.
stop playing with your plastic bag full of food.

turn off your (salty language) phone.

Jan. 28 2013 08:38 PM

I am seriously considering printing up small cards saying "Quiet please" in an elegant font to hand out to the gabby offenders during a performance.

Jan. 28 2013 06:29 PM

Once upon a time, all live theatre (i.e., theatre/ballet/opera/music hall etc. were social occasions as well as "being seen" occasions. That is no longer the case. Opera/theatre/ballet are live performances, meant to be enjoyed by a live audience. They are not venues for chat rooms or conversation pits. In fact, I have been to the NYC Ballet and the ushers there WILL tell rude patrons who are texting/talking that such behavior is unacceptable; likewise, anyone who tries to take pictures or tape a performance is told that is not allowed. (In fact, before every performance someone on stage informs the audience that eating, taking pictures or attempting to tape the performance are not allowed and requests that all patrons turn off their phones.) Sorry, Bernie, but you are way off base - and I sincerely hope that you are never at the same performance I am at.

Jan. 22 2013 05:51 PM

Does this mean I'm not supposed to hum or sing along during the performance also?

Jan. 22 2013 04:31 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama 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 12:53 PM
Paul from New York

At a recent Met Ballo we were sitting in the last row of the orchestra. Two youngish women were talking so much durng the first act that a member of standing room who resembled Erich von Stroheim hit one on the head with his program and told her to shut up. At intermission she felt the purchase of a ticket gave her the right to conversation as well. The opera was better before Mr. Gelb attracted this young audience who actually stays awake! lol

Jan. 21 2013 09:38 AM

"and let's not even talk about the cellphone cameras!!"

And the ambient light from screens while people are tweeting or playing "Words with Angry Birds Friends!"

Jan. 21 2013 02:19 AM
Bernie from UWS

I have to say I find many of the comments on this thread utterly ridiculous. Opera is not church or synagogue. It was the original popular entertainment for the masses. It's bawdy, it's shocking, it's melodramatic. After all, in what other artform do people boo or hiss performers they dislike? Or throw flowers on stage? It's all part of the tradition.

To imply that everyone must sit quietly and not make a sound doesn't ring true with history. Cheer when you hear something you like! Boo when something offends you! That's what makes it operatic.

Jan. 20 2013 11:16 PM
Ted Cerame from Perris, California

Dear friends of Opera. Joyce DiDinoto’s performance yesterday at the Saturday broadcast was so compelling that I started crying. For someone to disrupt such a mesmerizing moment is sinful. Why? The slightest loudness would have destroyed the great Diva’s finale. Opera is not for uncouth characters. It is obvious that they are not really connecting. I agree with Terrance McNally that opera is the highest form of Art.
I believe that in the final analysis it is up to the ushers to keep a sharp eye and ear for such offenders and kindly ask them to leave the theater and in the lounge have a polite usher to offender talk. Perhaps someone of your stature can bring this matter to the attention of the General Manger.
Good listening to all,

Jan. 20 2013 07:27 PM
Billfromtheshore from Forked River,NJ

On a lighter note- when I was much, much younger, I remember attending a performace of the Barber of Seville with Marilyn Horne. Three of us were in a box of four and the fourth occupant was a man at least in his eighties- who conducted the entire performance beautifully from his seat. Was it annoying? Slightly. But we all congratulated him on his performance upon leaving,it is something opera lovers can appreciate and something I thought at the time I might be doing when I reached his age. (Not there yet, but getting closer!)

Jan. 20 2013 06:07 PM
Bogotatenor from bogota, nj

Several seasons ago, I was at a performance of Tchaikovsky's "Mazeppa" at the Met. Sitting in the Orchestra, I heard someone humming the music very loudly. After looking angrily around to see where it was coming from, I realized the offender was Valery Gergiev in the pit!

Perhaps I'm wrong but is it not part of the usher's job to keep some sort of decorum in the auditorium. The ushers today won't even show you to your seat...and let's not even talk about the cellphone cameras!!

Jan. 20 2013 04:31 PM
Paul Padillo from Portland, ME

Talking/chatting, what-have-you, during a performance is precisely the type of thing up with which I will not put. Like Scott, I have no fear of turning around with a loud "Sssshhhhh!" If that doesn't work, I will turn around and quickly in a tone louder than sotto voce, say "Shut up!" If that doesn't work, bring in the goon squad during intermission.

Jan. 20 2013 02:05 PM
Jung from USA

Recently, at a performance, I turned to the 20s-something behind me to ask her to stop talking on her phone. Her reply was, "I am almost finished." Yesterday at the Stuarda in HD at the movie theater, a woman at a big back of chips throughout the second act, crinkling and crackly the bag all the way oblivious to shhhhhhhshes and calls from the rest for QUITE. "Let's expand the audience for opera" say the marketing departments.... But seriously, Fred. You never jumped seats at the MET?

Jan. 20 2013 08:24 AM
Marianna from Manhattan

I should know better than to get caught up in the dangerous world of blog comments. May I hopefully rise above the kvetching of this crowd to say - lighten up kids and take a cue from Fred's approach. He is principled but not nasty. This is not an invitation to trash other opera lovers. We must appeal to one anthers better being for that is why we go to the opera. I sit in the Family Circle and most of the time people are lovely, respectful and so pleased to be there. There is an occasional transgression, sure, but for every obnoxious moment there are 500 wonderful moments to remember. It might be a proper suggestion to make to a "talker" that the sharing is best done over a radio broadcast at home. We are, after all, only human. Compassion is a better path to take.

Jan. 19 2013 08:45 PM

Fred and others, I thought you might like to see this clip (below). The opera scene from this TV show, "Only fools and Horses" is actually much longer (and more painful), but this is the only clip I could find on youtube.

I still can't agree with Fred about using unused seats. I can think of absolutely no benefit from not allowing people to fill them in (and enjoy the performance more fully). Fred, does it anger you when people spread out into unoccupied seats on an airplane? "That person in a middle seat doesn't deserve to luck into an isle seat...."

Jan. 19 2013 03:21 PM

At a performance of La Boheme at The Met a few years ago, the gentleman sitting to my right on the aisle in the orchestra section (and only 8 rows back from the stage) felt compelled to join the tenor in the final two "Mimi's" which closed the final act, loud enough to be heard by those seated around him. And at such a poignant moment! Needless to say, it was not appreciated.

Jan. 19 2013 12:02 PM
James Libby from NY

The decorous audience only dates from the mid-19th C., Fred - before then, drunken, rowdy, louche behavior was commonplace, esp. in the upper balconies. A few weeks ago, I attended the Joyce DiDonato concert of Baroque standards at Carnegie Hall, and was amazed at how respectful, yet responsive the audience was. They waited to clap until the last diminuendo phrase was finished, and there were no cell phones ringing or chatter. Later that eve., I went to the Met, and was amazed at the clueless conduct of the crowd there.

Jan. 19 2013 10:23 AM
Beachsiggy from NJ/NY Metro

The only thing I find more offensive than the chattering during a performance is the cadre of a certain ethnic background who inhabit the upper reaches of the Met these days, who bring a picnic of smelly, loud when you eat it food, and chow down while the performance is in progress. It smells nauseating, it is noisy, and also rather unsanitary. It would not surprise me if they left their trash under the seats, but I've never dared to look.

Jan. 19 2013 08:54 AM
Bernie from UWS

I agree with David - especially with movies, I much prefer watching them on my home entertainment system than going to a theater where you have to deal with other people.

That being said, wasn't the whole early history of opera about a social occasion? People drank wine, played cards, socialized during performances? It was then a much less elite artform from what I understand. It's only because we've turned concert halls into religious temples in modern times that talking is even an issue.

Jan. 19 2013 08:07 AM
David from Flushing

The problem of patrons talking during performances at the Metropolitan Opera seems to have been around since day one. Articles about this appear with some regularity in music publications of the late 1800s. It seems the worst offenders at that time were not the seat jumpers, but the moneyed box holders. There seemed to be a consensus that one could hardly tell these people how to behave in their own boxes. One journal offered a solution in the form of a cartoon showing a glass enclosed box whose occupants were having a boisterous party.

The article raises the more serious point of just how enjoyable live performances are compared to recorded ones in the comfort of home. A live event involves getting dressed, leaving early and often getting home late. One is confined to a seat that offers few ways of shifting position. One is vulnerable to audience noise and odors---perfume being the least of the threats. One's view of the stage can be no better than watching TV in the higher reaches of the opera house and there are no close-ups.

Home viewing also has the blessed pause button that allows refreshments and other needs at pleasure. Those ladies that do the group pantomime of the Great
Wall of China across the Met lobby at intermissions know what I am talking about.

Jan. 19 2013 07:51 AM
Sarah Chang from Lower East Side, Manhattan

I completely agree with everything Fred says in this article. I've been to the Met 3 times in the last 3 years since I moved to NYC and recently I started to wonder if the audience was getting worse, or if I was just imagining it. Most people do know how to behave, but it is both amazing and distressing to me how certain others can be so clueless as to think that talking/giving commentary/making distracting sounds during a performance is acceptable behavior.

I saw Don Giovanni last month and had not one but TWO obnoxious groups sitting behind me (the first group left during intermission and the couple who sat in their seats for the second act were obviously seat jumpers). There was a woman in the first group who kept "sharing" her thoughts on the performance in a loud whisper, which was annoying enough- but when the volume of her voice actually rose to a normal speaking level (which completely confounded me), I immediately whirled around and shushed her furiously, along with another nearby audience member. This more or less shut her up, but the fact that she had to be shushed in the first place nearly ruined my enjoyment of the first act. The couple who sat behind us later was just as bad, but in a different way. My friend thought the man was drunk and he may well have been, considering how disrespectful and belligerent he was. He was a heavy-set man who kept shifting around loudly in his seat, and every time he did so he hit the back of my friend's headrest. When she finally turned and politely said something to him, he just glared dumbly at her. As if that weren't bad enough, he was physically all over his date and kept pawing at her, which was revolting to say the least.

My last time at the Met before that was actually ruined by a woman sitting 2 seats away who kept coughing every 2-3 seconds and sounded like she was on her deathbed. If you are sick, STAY HOME! In retrospect, I should have spoken to an usher and/or asked to be moved to another seat, instead of being distracted, angry and unable to concentrate on the performance and regretting it after, like I did. I'm 29, which puts me at the younger end of Met opera goers, and I have been attending opera and classical music performances for years; nonetheless, I'm beginning to think that if I have many more experiences like this, I won't be able to enjoy attending in the future.

I did, however, come to realize that it might not be that audiences are getting worse- it might just be that each successive time I've gone, I've sat further away from the stage. My first time at the Met I sat in the front row because I received a seat upgrade (a valid one with a corresponding ticket- I did not seat jump), and for all I know there may have been plenty of talking and noises happening further behind me. But of course, all I could hear was the orchestra 2 feet away from me, so that might explain why I didn't hear anything else!

Jan. 19 2013 04:28 AM

My first experience of Otello had me thoroughly confounded. It started off wrong and I had to use all my powers of concentration to follow the action as it strayed from the plot and wandered back. At intermission, the woman in front of me turned around and said, "Don't worry, dear. It's not Shakespeare." How did she know? I hadn't said a word.

Also, I just read a post and commentary on Rolling Stone about how awful are the people who film concerts instead of experiencing them.

Jan. 19 2013 01:19 AM
Cara De Silva from New York City

Reading this, I was reminded of being in a movie theater some years ago when, suddenly, a man several rows away began mindlessly tossing his keys up and down. In a loud whisper, I asked him to stop. His response? "If you want quiet, why don't you go sit in a funeral parlor." Only my companion, and good manners (I didn't want to disturb anyone further) kept me from pursuing.

I despair of getting people in a theater to be quiet, but I always give it my best shot just because I find it so rude and maddening. Of course, the people doing the talking seem to think anyone who objects is peculiar.

The root of it? Well, you quite rightly refer to the transfer of acceptable behavior from tv watching at home to acceptable behavior in a theater. But it isn't only a matter of talking back to the television set. It is a matter of all those watching feeling free to have an ongoing discussion among themselves.

As for having tweet seats at the Guthrie, I loathe the idea, but I also think it is brilliant. Since as theater and opera and concert goers know all too well, people tweet anyway, they might as well have a place to do it in isolation.

Jan. 19 2013 01:10 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

If people are nearby and talking continuously during a performance, a good sharp angry "Shhhhhh!" shuts them up almost every time.For those rare times when it does not, I recommend an intermission chat about the situation with an usher.

Jan. 19 2013 12:48 AM
Paul Pelkonen from Brooklyn, NY

My "favorite" example of this happened at a spring 2011 Rigoletto, with Zeljko Lucic and Diana Damrau as the jester and his daughter. I was sitting in Row B of the Family Circle (what the house now calls "Family Circle Premium.") Somewhere in Act I...the fella behind me.

"This guy, this guy singin' Rigoletto. He's really good. Yeah. I saw him here two years ago..."

Oh no. I knew what was coming.

"I saw him here two year MACBETH."

Sigh. Some people have no respect for tradition and superstition.

Jan. 19 2013 12:37 AM
ganygany5@msn.comg from QUEENS

You shoule have had an usher handle the situation, period.



Jan. 18 2013 10:58 PM
Frank from UWS

I agree with you except on one point: I do think there is value in having Tweet Seats in a theater IF they're separate from the rest of the audience. That is my understanding with many of these experiments: you can section off an area where the lights from the screens and the clicking won't disturb others who don't wish to Tweet. Let's face it, that's how many younger people consume any kind of entertainment or art today. Go to a museum and people are looking things up on their phones as they examine a painting. Watch a sporting event and people often hold up their phones in participatory exercises. You can't completely write them off if you hope to ever build audiences for the future.

Jan. 18 2013 04:28 PM
Kelli Nakagama from Salt Lake City, Utah

I couldn't agree more with your post. Nothing is more annoying than people who can't stay quite during a performance. I think there is a lot of truth to this part: "The bigger issue here is that many people have lost the idea of what it means to be part of an audience." And, it seems, people have forgotten that it's ok to keep some feelings and thoughts to themselves.

Jan. 18 2013 04:18 PM

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