Sunday, May 10, 2009

Is it okay to boo at operas?

A time honored tradition at any sporting event is booing. In Philadelphia fans been even known to boo the opposition and not just their own players. New York fans tend to confine their booing to the visiting team but should an opposing outfielder crash into a fence they’ll ease up on the jeering by spitting on the fallen athlete.

But it’s expected. It’s a ballgame. And they serve beer.

Lately, however, the practice has expanded. People are now booing at operas.

Some fat woman in a Viking helmet can’t hit high E after C, theatergoers let her have it. Should a director take liberties with that classic Der Ring des Nibelungen he’ll hear about it in no uncertain terms.

This is not a trend I approve of. First of all, when I go to an opera I don’t want anything to wake me up. Secondly, what does this say about our society? Has our rage gotten so out of hand that we feel the need to blast bulbous singing clowns? Do they now sell Budweiser at Teatro Regio di Parma?

I’m not an opera buff. But it was nice to know there was some civility somewhere. I mean, it’s not like Barry Bonds is barnstorming Austria singing Pagliacci.

People are also booing in movie theaters and this really baffles me. I can see it during test screenings. The filmmakers are there seeking input. But when you boo Sylvester Stallone for being twenty years too old to star as an action hero at a Cineplex in Kansas on a Tuesday night, chances are good he’s not going to hear you. Actually, in that case no one will hear you because you’ll be alone in the theater.

Still the question remains, do you think it’s okay to boo at operas or plays or musicals besides CATS?


Monty Ashley said...

I believe booing actually started at operas.

Jaime J. Weinman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jaime J. Weinman said...

Booing is common and traditional in Italy. It's true that opera is more popular in Italy than elsewhere, but still, there are few art forms where the audience is traditionally less civil than opera.

Opera is a lot like sports anyway (certainly more exciting than a lot of sports I can think of): just singing the notes is an athletic feat, and singing them all with expression and dramatic feeling is what separates the merely adequate athletes from the great ones.

When someone boos at an opera, they're booing for the same reasons sports fans boo players: because they paid to see a test of athletic skill and someone screwed up.

Besides, if it wasn't OK to boo, the audience wouldn't have booed the bad guy off the stage at the end of A Night at the Opera and the Marx Brothers would have lost. It can't be wrong to boo if it helps the Marx Brothers win.

Nat G said...

Well, I don't go to the opera.... but if someone started booing in the midst of any stage performance I attended, I'd get pretty damned pissed. I didn't pay big ticket prices to find out what the guy two rows back feels about the performance, I paid to experience the performance. And if I'm not hating what he's hating, why the hell should he try to interrupt my experience of the event?

If ya don't like it, leave.

Jason said...

It depends on where you are. In Europe, opera's historically been more of a contact sport. In America, it's an opportunity for the rich to see and be seen. Booing would be an unpleasant distraction.

By the way, if you want to see a great opera, check out Great Performances on PBS on the 17th. They're showing the Met HD broadcast of Orfeo with Stephanie Blythe from earlier this year. She's one of the best singers working today, it's beautiful material, a great production, and it's a short opera (90 minutes) with a happy ending. If you have the slightest curiosity about the art form, it's about as good an introduction as you'll ever get.

And you can watch it in your underwear with a can of beer, which I find always enhances the experience.

A. Buck Short said...

I thought the same thing, until I realized they were actually shouting, "Lou, Lou, Lou."

Tim W. said...

Along the same lines, I remember the first time I was at a movie where they clapped at the end. I turned to the person I was with and wondered aloud whether these people knew that the actors weren't actually in the theatre to hear the applause. Who exactly was the applause for?

Unknown said...


What a boring blog post!



I think it's ok as long as you paid for your tickets.

By Ken Levine said...


Then read more exciting blogs.

Anonymous said...

well, back in the day when there was no baseball (still the case pretty much all over the world, thank god) or reality TV (no such luck there), operas and shakespeare plays where the place to get your popular entertainment (did you hear the one about the "heads of the maidens"? heh, am I rite folks?). So I expect that's where booing comes from.

and who wouldn't have payed to watch Florence Foster Jenkins do Der Hölle Rache and throw some beer at her?

Anonymous said...

Tim W.--The applause was for the benefit of the applauders. It feels good to applaud a good show. I've had fun "starting" the applause at a screening of The Lion King at Radio City (right after the opening number ends) and at (yes, I'm deranged) at the all-robot American Adventure show at EPCOT.

verification papsy: soft drink for babies

ELS said...

Speaking as an attendee of opera (or the theatre, much the same difference), if I were in the audience and someone started booing, I think I'd ask them to keep it down, as I'm trying to watch the show. The next step is to ask the usher to ask them to calm down or leave. The next... I dunno, maybe douse 'em with beer after all. Y'know, Klingon opera is measured by the quality of the fights in the audience...

If I were on stage (and I do community theatre and singing), I would ignore the first few seconds, and then hope that the stage manager would have the sense to stop the production until such time as the retard could be dealt with.

Sports performances measure physical ability and judgment, etc. Theatrical performances (except for ad lib) involve performing someone else's work, a reproduction for art's sake. I guess if two sports teams were to replay, say, the Indians - Braves last game of the '95 World Series, maybe I wouldn't boo that either. (But being an Indians fan... well, one just never knows.)

WV: antlych: The aardvark equivalent of that treat for deer.

I remain,
Eric L. Sofer
The Bad Clown

Rinaldo said...

Monty and Jaime are right, booing is not some recent invention at the opera -- that's where it started. Go to an opera in Europe (especially in Germany or Italy) and you'll hear plenty of it; in Germany, likely for the director of the offensive new production, in Italy more likely for a singer who didn't live up to the requirements of the blood-sport opera attendees.

Even so conservative a behavior authority as Miss Manners has conceded that, if we may make noises of approval at an opera (which nobody is trying to eliminate, right?), then there is no logical reason to forbid noises of disapproval. Both "intrude on the experience of other audience members" equally.

My own principle is that I would only boo an operatic performer on the grounds of deliberate willful desecration of a work; if they're doing their best, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. And in fact I have never booed at the opera (though once or twice I've been tempted).

And I realize that this is a humorous blog, but isn't it time to let go of the idea that opera stages are populated by fat people in Viking helmets? That's more than a century out of date.

Rory Wohl said...

Let's also not forget that in the 19th century it was common for the audience to applaud and cheer so loudly at a scene or soliloquy in a play that the actor(s) would stop and repeat their lines. So, if they can handle the cheering, they should be able to handle to booing as well.

Mary Stella said...

I'm a Phillies fan and I never boo our team. I rarely boo the opposing team unless JD Drew is on it and comes to the plate.

I think booing at operas, plays, and concerts is unnecessary and completely uncalled for at the local karaoke bar.

Then again, it's less damaging to a person's career, not to mention his/her life than ancient Romans giving the thumbs down at the Colliseum.

Chip said...

I don't think it's appropriate to boo, but I do think the proper way to express your disatisfaction is to NOT applaud.

I hear it once - at an opera, in fact - and the silence was a thousand times more deafening than any booing could have been.

John said...

I used to have a debate with my college roommate over whether it was better to have a stadium full of people booing the home team, or a stadium that was half empty, but where the fans never booed their hometown heroes. I came down on the side of the former, since if the home team actually does something good, you've then got a whole stadium there to cheer the team on -- plus from the mercenary standpoint for the players and management, if their butts aren't in the seats, you don't get the ticket or concession money, which I'm sure the singers and managers at the opera also like to have.

(Our other big debate was over fast food restaurants, which as a cross-country runner he abhorred, which in turn led his friend from home to suggest we go down to Burger King and boo the help.)

Tom Quigley said...

If Manny Ramirez ever shows up in an LA Opera Company production, then I think I'll be justified in booing...

A. Buck Short said...

On second thought, I agree that it is the audience that is inept here. What they may have been going for was an interjection rather than an opinion. It’s something that will become obvious next Halloween. What they obviously were trying to do – unsuccessfully -- is suddenly, shout the “BOO!” loudly, unexpectedly and in unison, thereby to scare the crap out of the contralto into singing better.

That is not to say elements of mockery are not also involved. Sometimes the word is shouted as a reference to Boo Radley, the character played by Robert Duvall in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” adapted for the screen by Pulitzer Prize/Oscar-winner Horton Foote. In other words, “Your rendition is so lousy, it could even be sung better by Robert Duvall.” Or conversely, “You think you can sing this better than Robert Duvall? My foot!”

At other times, the inference is that the performance is so unbearable, the boo-er is suggesting to the boo-ee the rest of the audience join him in an immediate intermission tea break. This, of course is the origin of the expression “Boo-tea-call” -- not to mention a very, very, very long way to go for a punch line that flaccid.

However, I hope this does further help to clear things up. Thanks for the opportunity. There is little one can enjoy more than a robust philological start to a Monday morning; [anticipating response] O.K., bring it!

Emily Blake said...

The only time I've ever approved of booing was in Spain when I watched a bullfighter fail miserably and stab the bull 13 times before they had to call in the dagger guy.

But in Spain they don't boo, they whistle, which was confusing to us Americans.

I think class is a good thing and we should encourage it.

My biggest problem is how people now give standing ovations to EVERYTHING.

Kathy said...

People have been booing at operas for centuries. It used to be the equivalent of going to a baseball game or that sort of thing. (Well, in certain theaters, anyway.)

I don't know how to ask this without sounding snarky. I don't mean it that way, I promise. Was this post a joke because you knew booing practically started at opera performances? Sometimes my humor filter malfunctions and I accidentally read satire literally.

Mr. Benchley said...

I believe in Italy, operagoers whistle rather than boo to express displeasure.

While at La Scala in Milan some years ago (obligatory snobby pause), I was present when a soprano missed a note, and the audience whistled and hissed.

Then at intermission they demanded a curtain they could whistle and hiss at her again.

Blogging in the Wind said...

As Ken correctly states, it is only okay to boo at "CATS", in fact it should be mandatory.

Eric M said...

First of all, when I go to an opera I don’t want anything to wake me up.Hilarious.

AlaskaRay said...

I've noticed that lately I boo so often and in so many places that it's become a drain on my energy, so I just recorded my boos and play them loudly, whenever appropriate.


WV: inests - another new apple product that's for the birds

benson said...

Boo-ing Schmoo-ing...


wv: disrestw...booing at an opera is the hell do you spell that word? Ah, screw it.

elric31 said...

While I can't speak for opera audiences, I can recall being at the Bruin Westwood circa 1967 and being startled at a sneak preview for Peter Watkin's film "Privilege" by the loud boos as it ended.

But as you said, Ken, the filmmakers--or at least the studio reps--might be there for a sneak preview. I assume the nasty reception hurt the picture's eventual distribution, which was minimal.
(That was back when sneaks didn't announce the titles beforehand as they do now.)

I think what incensed the audience was the film's view that youth could be easily manipulated by mass media. Which seems quite prescient for 1967--but not something a theater full of college students wanted to be told...

Ralphie said...

The first performance of "The Barber of Seville" was a notorious disaster. From Wikipedia:

Barbiere's first performance on February 20, 1816 was a disastrous failure: the audience hissed and jeered throughout, and several on-stage accidents occurred. However, many of the audience were supporters of one of Rossini's rivals who played on "mob mentality" to provoke the rest of the audience to dislike the opera. The second performance met with quite a different fate, becoming a roaring success. It is curious to note that the original French play of Le Barbier de Séville endured a similar story, hated at first only to become a hit within a week.


wv: unrer What you have to do if you accidently rer.

Kate said...

I know that booing is commonplace at La Scala and it's acceptable (so I hear) in European houses. The only time I've heard booing at an American operahouse is when a well-played villain takes their curtain call. The Princess of L.A. Opera's 'Suor Angelica' and several Scarpias come to mind.

Otherwise, if you boo, you mean it seriously against anything in the show, and you're in an American operahouse, that's a hanging offense. Hell, I'm enraged when people leave for their cars during curtain calls. It isn't so hard to behave respectfully during a show.

On the other hand, if you're at a place that does accept booing and it's part of performing at the venue, you should be able to take it (AlagnaIamlookingatyou), but I still don't think it's okay to let your cell phone go off right before "Casta Diva" as a very obvious slight against the singer.

And regarding the fat brauds in viking helmets, may I direct your attention to Anna Netrebko, Danielle de Niese, Natalie Dessay, Renee Fleming, Karita Mattila, and hundreds of other trim and excellent singers. Even the un-trim shouldn't be mocked. ;) Deborah Voigt and Stephanie Blythe come to mind and they're tremendous singers. Vanity Fair just had a small piece on some of opera's sexiest stars (which is the understatement of the year regarding Nathan Gunn).

[/opera fangirl out]

growingupartists said...

It totally depends on whether there's a difference between humanity and civilization, a discussion which is already going on in Earl's blog. Leagues ahead of yours, I might add.

As far as dignity goes. But if the indignant are happy with stealing luxuries from orphans all their lives, who am I other than an average American to complain.

A. Buck Short said...

RE:Don't want anything to wake me up. Heh.

You just reminded me, the night before the premiere of "Yes Giorgio," with Pavarotti, I was up most of the night for the birth of our daughter. (Yes it was kind of hard on my wife too.) I nodded off through the picture, only awakened by the singing -- so I think I caught all the best parts.

Emily, the thing I don't understand about bull fighting is the gender confusing. Every time the matador makes a pass, why does the crowd shout "Au lait," which is French for with milk?

Kate said...

Ralphie - I just sat through 'La Cenerentola' and while the production was lovely and the singers were top-notch, 3 1/2 hours of Rossini is a bit like 3 1/2 hours of listening to a machine gun.

'BoS' isn't the only riot-inducing show. 'Tosca' and 'Madama Butterfly' were a mess when they opened, 'Salome' was a scandal almost everywhere, 'Tannhauser' was protested by the Jockey Club, and it's not an opera, but 'The Rite of Spring' was the source of some of the most famous classical music riots, which always cracks me up. A classical music riot sounds like something right out of 'Frasier'. (Forgive me if it has been done in 'Frasier'. I'm behind.) The Met is celebrating its 125th anniversary and downstairs they have mini-exhibits about some of their shows, including blown-up articles about the original reviews of 'Salome' (where they detail J.P. Morgan's daughter's attempt to shut the show down) and 'La Boheme' (where Mimi is called 'vulgar' in comparison with Violetta. It boggles the mind.)

Btw, Ken, where are you reading about this recent case of booing? I'm curious.

emily said...

I'd rather hear booing at the opera than the constant, booze fueled "Get in the hole" screamed constantly at every major golf tournament I try to enjoy.

Unknown said...

never been to the opera before. but the question as i see it should be, "why shouldnt you boo at operas?" assuming of course, the opera was garbage.


Ralphie said...

Well, I've been thinking about this since I posted this afternoon, and I have some new thoughts on the subject.

I am a singer, and have sung in a few operas in the chorus. I have never heard booing from the audience, even when we earned it. At a performance of "Prince Igor" we had an a capella chorus and went about a half step sharp during it, which, of course, made the orchestra sound a half step flat when they came in. Pew! Anyway, no one booed. In "Carmen" when the Toreador wasn't watching the stick in his B.T. (Big Tune), and held a note for 5 beats instead of 4, no one booed. Of course, he and the maestro were professionals and ended up together, but still.

I have to think that booing at the opera would be very bad manners, on the order of a cell phone going off, or perhaps a large burp.

Having said all this I really believe that no one but another singer, who has some experience with all the factors going on onstage during a performance, has the authority to boo, and I don't know any who would. I certainly wouldn't.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes booing is only the first step. The first performance of Diaghelev's ballet of Stravinsky's the Rite of Spring in 1913 in Paris caused a riot to break out in the audience!

Buttermilk Sky said...

I'd rather hear honest booing than the automatic standing ovation that follows every performance now, however mediocre. It's as if people need to reassure themselves that the huge sums they spend on tickets are not wasted. So a matinee of "Mamma Mia!" is hailed as if it were the world premiere of "Hamlet". ("A triumph!" -- Rolling Stone)

Until fairly late in the 19th century, opera houses were nothing like today's. The house lights stayed on, and singers competed with audience members eating, talking, making out and, of course, sleeping. "Tannhauser" tanked in Paris because the influential Jockey Club only went to the opera around 9 o'clock to watch their mistresses dance. Wagner put the ballet in Act I, and they missed it. And every opera had to have a ballet to even get produced in Paris. Miserable cheese-eating surrender monkeys....

Michael Taylor said...

Just because they do something in Europe is no reason to do it here, whether it be booing at an opera, or attending a professional soccer -- er, football -- game. Some things just don't translate to America, and up 'til now, I thought booing at on opera was one of them.

Emily is right -- the serious decline in civility in our public society began when people started mouthing off at golf tournaments. Now every drunken fool feels he or she has the right to bellow at the top of her/his lungs whenever -- and wherever -- the beer dictates.

In that, we come out the losers.

Bogdan said...

Of course it is ok to boo, even at the opera. If you accept quietly the fact that you paid 100 or more dollars/euros for your ticket and you get a questionable performance in return, you should have the right to protest. I'm not the kind to boo at the smallest crack of an artist or something like that (we all make mistakes), but believe me I have attended some operas were you could see the disgust of the singer, his/her boredom, crack after crack after crack, no acting whatsoever etc. Also, sometimes the conductor is the one to blame. When the orchestra keeps getting out of hand, keeps making mistakes and keeps falling behind the artists, then you should definitely boo the conductor. You should never protest during the performance, but I consider you have the right to do so when the aria is over. It is not a question of civility, it is a question of tolerance. Like I said, it's one thing to make one little mistake and quite another to scream on stage and pretend that's singing. Booing doesn't come from lack of civility, but from passion - passion for singing, for acting, for art, for opera. And another thing - as long as people are allowed to shout out "Bravi" and things like that, the opposite should be allowed as well.