Le Bell Canto by June LeBell

Audience Behavior

Posted January 24, 2011 at 3:00 pm

by June LeBell

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I’ve been meaning, for some time, to write a little note about audience behavior and protocol, especially in this day of multi-diversified performances that take us from popping popcorn into our mouths during a Wagnerian epic in HD to black tie opera openings, symphonic travelogues and balletic, athletic, dramatic (rheumatic) enactments that call for attention spans lost in the miasma of modern myths and televised mad men who prey on our need to get to the bathroom or beat the traffic rush in the parking lot.

Just how should we behave at a performance?

When we’re dressed to the nines should those nines be doused in perfume?

Is it wrong to applaud between the movements of a symphony?

Does a concert or opera audience dare to sound like a goggle-eyed teenager at a rock concert, cheering and stomping and shouting hooray?

Is it possible to clap sitting down?

Hey — these are all important 21st century questions and, in the next few paragraphs, I’ll attempt to address them all. And a little bit more.

Let’s start with traveling behavior at the Van Wezel, our “Purple Cow” auditorium that has continental seating (i.e.: no center aisles). Aside from wishing a hurricane would whip through Sarasota Bay, leaving everything standing except this awful edifice, there must be a way to deal with its terrible acoustics, uncomfortable seating plan and ridiculously inept parking lot.

It’s a rotten place to perform. It’s an even rottener place to sit in. The only good things about the Van Wezel are the sight-lines inside the theater and the view outside. Otherwise, it’s a place where classical musicians are often inaudible (I know they’re playing…I see their hands moving!), visiting pop or Broadway performers are so over-amplified, they blow our ears out, and the rental rates are so exorbitant, many of our favorite (and finest) performers are priced out of the market.

Audiences can only try to be polite to one another, acknowledging that we’re all in the same boat and, if we want to hear great performances by great performers, we don’t have a choice. For now.

Applauding at inopportune moments is always a question of taste, unless you simply don’t know the moment is inopportune. Then it borders on criminal. Somewhere in the middle of the 20th century, someone changed the old rules that allowed us to applaud when moved, and decreed that applause should always be held until the conclusion of a concerto or symphony or aria. But only the most rigid of conductors and performers will be upset if you simply must clap-a-yo-hands and slap-a-yo-thighs in enthusiasm after a particularly stirring first movement. If they complain because you loved them, they deserve to be deprived on account of they’re depraved.

As for perfume and cologne (and this goes for women, as well as men), any more than a mere hint of scent is an offence to everyone around you. After a recent nasal assault at the opera, I’ve decided theaters should set up Sniffometers, large immovable portals (similar to the metal detectors at airports) that gauge the amount of scent — perfume, fragrance, cologne, aftershave, toilet water, shampoo and body lotion — emitted by each person entering the lobby. Anyone with more than a whiff or a hint or a sniff of scent should be sent to the showers with unscented soaps and harsh detergents, forcing them to miss the entire first act. Or more.

And, yes, there is a way to clap without standing up. It is not necessary to give a standing ovation at the end of every performance you attend. You can even show enthusiasm by shouting “bravo” from a sitting position! Remember, if you stand and applaud at the conclusion of everything you go to, you’ll never remember what was truly inspiring, truly worthy of getting yourself up to your feet and paying homage to a truly exquisite performance.

OK, you’re right, attending the theater, a concert, recitals, ballet, opera or anything else on stage shouldn’t have right and wrong rules attached. On the other hand, once we’ve left the warmth, intimacy and security of our DVRs, DVDs, CDs, and turned in our couch potato status for that of audience member, we must behave in ways that will get us invited back.

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