The booing debate

30 Jun

I don’t often go to first nights at the ROH and this may be why I haven’t experienced booing as vigorous and unpleasant as I did at the opening night of Guillaume Tell on 29th June. Until then I had been broadly on the side of booers – I think that if you really dislike a performance then booing at the end can be a helpful outlet, a good way of letting the director and the company know what you think. Having paid for your seat, you’re entitled to expect to enjoy yourself and there is little so frustrating as sitting there, watching a show that you really hate.  They’ve been taking up four and a half hours of your life that you’ll never get – surely you have a right to let them know.  I still think, broadly, but the booing last night raised questions in my mind.

You could sense that the audience weren’t sure about the production. What caused the booing was a passage during the Act III ballet music where we watched a group of soldiers abusing a woman, stripping her and attempting to rape her. As they got her on the table a man started booing – he was in the lower slips on the left hand side – and I wonder whether he could actually see what was going on, given the placing over said table. A number of others joined in. It stopped when the singing started, then continued after the Act finished. There was even a boo for Finley after sois immobile and then heavy booing at the end of the Act. There was an attempt to disrupt the opening of the fourth act with someone shouting “Shame on you Tony” as the music began, loud snoring and a bit of disruption until the rest of us made it pretty clear that enough was enough. I didn’t wait for the curtain calls.  I don’t imagine that Damiano Michieletto, the director, got a standing ovation.

Now I felt that the booing during the music was inexcusable. Aside from the sheer rudeness to the performers and the distraction this must cause them, it’s incredibly rude to the rest of the audience. By doing it, booers prevent them from concentrating on the performance and hearing the music. There’s an incredible arrogance about assuming that you are can impose your views on everyone else like that.  Just because the director may be ruining an opera for you doesn’t make it right for you to ruin things for everything else. That needs to stop.

But it stirred other questions.

1.  Why is it always the people in the cheaper seats who boo? I don’t think I’ve ever heard booing from the stalls. Is it because people in the expensive seats are inherently more civilised or because they’ve paid so much they don’t want to show that they’re not enjoying it? Do people in the cheap seats come more often so feel they know more? Or are they just inherently boorish? Does the fact that you’ve contributed least to the performance make you feel you have an entitlement to boo? Or does the fact that you are in the cheap seats make you feel alienated and out of it?

2. Why does nobody boo the bits that really irritate me – those little things that distract you from the singing or the mindless, thoughtless, bland direction? Like that Ballo in maschera.

3. Why is it often the scenes of sex and violence that cause it? There seems to be an idea that opera is beautiful and inherently civilised and that you cannot possibly have explicit sex and violence on the stage. It’s for nice people and nice people don’t go for that? That seems to be the psychology of it and seems to ignore the fact that many operas are about incest, illicit sex and mindless violence and revenge. I blame the fact that it’s sung in a language people don’t understand.

4. I don’t really believe that most directors actually want to be booed, just as I don’t think most people go to the theatre hoping to boo. I’m ignoring some established vendettas for these purposes, but I’m pretty sure this holds, at least in London. But this is an expression of real anger at what is seen.

5. Why does it happen much more often at the ROH than at ENO where, on the whole, far greater liberties are taking with operas and the direction and what does that say about my theory about people in cheap seats?  I don’t think I’ve every heard booing in the straight theatre and I’ve seen far more shocking and poor quality performances there than I’ve ever seen at the ROH.  Is it about the language?

6. I’m all for opera directors challenging audiences and I don’t think that the ROH Tell was that bad but, if I were Holten and the ROH Board, I’d be getting worried about what feels like a high proportion of productions that are getting this treatment. Is it the booers or the House that are out of line?

Or am I just taking it too seriously?

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