Even Wagner Can’t Shush The Italians

When discussion turns to how audiences were once pretty raucous but are now expected to sit quietly, you get the impression that those times are long past. Those who are plugged into the opera world are probably aware, however, that at least a certain segment of the audience at La Scala is still pretty vocal. According to a piece on History Today, in 2013 the opening performance of La Traviata was accompanied by catcalls and hissing.

…having interrupted the performance several times with noisy catcalls, they rounded off the evening by booing loudly during the curtain call. The cast were devastated. The Polish tenor, Piotr Beczala – who had sung the part of Alfredo Germont – was so appalled that he refused to perform at Milan’s most celebrated cultural landmark ever again.

It wasn’t the first time that the loggionisti had made their feelings heard. In 2006, the Franco-Sicilian tenor Roberto Alagna stormed off stage midway through a performance of Verdi’s Aida in protest at the furious cries that were hurled at him. Even the great Luciano Pavarotti was not spared the loggionisti’s wrath. In 1992, he was booed while playing the title role in Verdi’s Don Carlo.

Shortly before taking the Artistic Director post in 2014, Alexander Pereira, declared his determination to stamp the practice out.

The loggionisti, however, disagreed. Believing that the audience have every right to take sub-standard singers to task, they have continued to raise merry hell.

While we may want to cite numerous interruptions by cellphones, talking, consuming food, etc that occurs these days as a similar manifestation, note that the loggionisti are, at least theoretically, invested in paying attention to the performance and are relatively knowledgeable.

Though when you are talking about interruptions, that is perhaps a distinction without a difference. I wrote about similar situations before when audiences in the US were so invested in performances, they might complain during a show when an actor’s interpretation of Shakespeare didn’t align with their own.

Reading the History Today piece, you might start to think history repeats itself with its discussion of designing pieces to suit short attention spans.

Realising that no audience would listen to an entire work, composers started to produce pieces that took account of their inattention. These often included an aria di sorbetto (‘sherbet aria’), an incidental passage that allowed the audience to buy food or drink without fear of missing anything important.

Like most articles on this topic, it credits Richard Wagner’s influence and demanding plot structure as the reason audiences started to sit silently and pay attention.  The fact Wagner’s name inevitable comes up as the reason for this change makes me wonder at the veracity of this claim. Could he really have been that influential or is everyone who writes about this reading from the same source (or quoting sources that all quote that original source)?

The History Today article does say that societal changes were of greater importance in the effort to bring peace to opera houses. It suggests that with the wider variety of entertainment options available in the informal atmosphere of music halls, opera houses got quieter, leaving those that appreciated opera a growing appreciation of the silence.

What implications might this have for the current cultural environment? There are pretty strong indications that people appreciate the convenience, informality and variety of entertainment available to them at home via streaming services/video games/general Internet.

I might have come to the conclusion that cultural organizations should therefore offer a wider variety of programming in an informal environment. However, the Seattle Symphony findings I wrote about on Monday make me reconsider that.  Their newer audiences gravitated toward the informal, short programming certainly, but it was also the most narrowly programmed season.

Granted, they are a single organization practicing a single cultural discipline which ultimately constitutes a pretty minuscule sample. But reading about it makes me pause before making any blanket statements. The only thing that is easy to say is this is a complex situation requiring careful thought.

There has been this assumption that newer works that connect with the tastes and values of younger audiences need to be presented rather than returning perennially to the old warhorses. But as I wrote in an email to Drew McManus, it turns out, for the Seattle Symphony at least, that the audience open to the most eclectic mix of programming is the one that is dying out.

As I say, this may only be true for a single organization and/or classical music. It made me a little embarrassed to think that an apology might be owed to a devoted audience that has been characterized as stodgy and tradition bound when it turns out they might be the radicals.

Getting back to the History Today article. As much as I don’t want a return to the chaotic environment described in articles like this, I continue to return to the subject to remind myself (and you) that we need to keep thinking about the environment we are providing. When I wrote about the Culture Track study last month, I used a lot of slides related to motivators to visit museums and galleries but the slides for live performance events are similar.

The top motivator across most genres was Having Fun, second was Interest in Content, followed by things like feeling inspired, new experiences and social opportunities with friends. People aren’t looking to scream across the room at their friends and wreck the place. There is a strong interest in the content and its value as well.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


4 thoughts on “Even Wagner Can’t Shush The Italians”

  1. I’m not much into music (my wife, however, is an opera buff), but I do like non-musical theater.

    It has always been my experience that the most experimental work is most appreciated by the most experienced attendees. Generally the only young people you see at experimental works are the friends or family of the cast.

    If you’ve been thinking that you need to do experimental work to pull in new audiences, you have it exactly backwards. New audience members want something they have heard of, and they haven’t heard of anything but the most famous of stuff.

    • I wasn’t thinking so much about experimental work which can tend toward abstraction that is foreign to a lot of people’s experience and more about the assertion that we need to make things relatable to younger audiences. It was somewhat interesting that the series that tapped into Seattle’s local music history of grunge/rap, etc apparently didn’t gain as much traction with younger audiences as the “dress down and listen to classical” series.

      Though as someone pointed out, the frequency at which some of the other series were presented may have played a role. If they had 10 of the informal dress concerts vs 3 of the symphony with grunge icons concerts, then obviously there is more opportunity for younger audiences to connect with the former series.

  2. This is a tangent, but it answers your observation that “a devoted audience that has been characterized as stodgy and tradition bound… might be the radicals.” It also has to do with the limited sample size not of the people making judgments but the things they are judging. They may be radicals as far as the opera they will sit through, but this does not mean they are open to Rap music and Country ballads………..

    There is an important difference between insiders and outsiders. To outsiders it’s all foreign. That is, it’s all the same in being understood from the outside. Its all ‘classical music’ for instance. There is no nuance because the differentiation only happens from the inside. Mozart is the same as Beethoven. What they have in common obscures what is different.

    From the inside, for people who ‘get’ what is going on, they can tell differences. Differences matter. Nuance stands out rather than recedes. And so it is possible to make ever more discerning and discriminating judgments.

    In between the true outsiders and the true insiders is something else. It is an understanding that is not completely foreign, but it is also not especially nuanced. These folks find certain things familiar, and that is the extent of what they know. They know the ‘old warhorses’ and the rest is hidden behind the curtain of their ignorance (lack of meaningful exposure) and their absence of curiosity. They only care about what they know, and they simply know very little. They know what virtually everybody knows.

    Think of it like this. A kid has limited taste buds and limited experience. She is not an outsider to food. She’s had some things and some things she likes. She likes vanilla ice cream. That’s what she knows and that’s what she likes. Who doesn’t appreciate vanilla ice cream? There is also a gourmet chef who knows very much about all kinds of food. But in knowing so much and in having more refined judgments the chef is both willing to experiment more but be willing to shun a lot as unworthy. To be discriminating is an open door, but it comes at a cost. Vanilla ice cream, maybe on a slice of apple pie, sure, but he can do better than plain vanilla ice cream. What about chocolate mango ice cream with a hint of cayenne? From the inside you can be both radical AND seriously uptight.


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