I can claim neither a stake nor a particular interest in the Royal Opera’s new staging of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda; I cannot stand Donizetti’s music, still less what seem to me his feeble attempts at musical drama. Nevertheless, the production and, more precisely, some reactions to it, seem to have caused a bit of a stir. It is far from the first time that a first night audience’s experience has been ruined by the booing of a vocal minority. Rusalka, which received a production that was hardly ‘difficult’, yet which nevertheless asked that an audience bother to think, to participate, was treated similarly a little while ago at the same venue; so, more recently, was Calixto Bieito’s excellent production of Fidelio for ENO. There are many other examples. Nevertheless, such behaviour and discussion of such behaviour have occasioned a few thoughts.
First, and perhaps foremost, is a matter of gender. Have you ever heard a female boo-er? Doubtless there are a few here or there, but I cannot recall a single one. This seems very much to be behaviour associated not with all men, but predominantly, perhaps almost exclusively, with some of them. I first encountered it, cruelly directed at a particular singer (who was hopeless, but nevertheless…) at the Bayreuth Festival, on the occasion of my first visit there in 2000. It seems more generally to be levelled, however, at directors and the production team more generally, though the behaviour of certain sections of the audience at La Scala, for instance, tells another story again. (A culture that treats opera as if it were football may well turn out to deserve neither. It certainly does not deserve Parsifal or Wozzeck.) Are the unabashedly reactionary loggionisti all male? I do not know, never having attended the opera in Milan, but I should be surprised if there were many women amongst them. Note, moreover, that whilst there may be criticism, sometimes savage, of the worst of ‘traditional’ stagings, it never seems to take the form of booing; it always seems to emanate from petit bourgeois outrage at something beyond the unimaginative ken of self-appointed ‘traditionalists’.
What does booing entail? A bestial response to something of which, presumably, the perpetrator disapproves, a response, moreover, which seems intended to garner attention, to threaten the scapegoated victim in the public arena of the theatrical here-and-now, and violently to drown out the applause and even the non-applause of others. Some have claimed that booing is merely the other side of the coin to applause. Now, admittedly, it can sometimes be irritating to encounter enthusiastic applause for something one has thought mediocre or worse, but one can always refrain from joining in. Is that not a better approach than seeking, in at least quasi-fascistic fashion, to drown out the enthusiasm, however well- or ill-founded, of others? We are not dealing with a game show, in which the contestant with the greatest balance of cheering against booing wins a cash prize; or at least we should not be dealing with that. Given that the generally accepted way of thanking performers for their efforts would be to applaud, is not withdrawal of applause quite enough to indicate displeasure and disapproval? What can someone have done that is so truly appalling that it necessitates assumption of the persona of a rowdy farmyard (male) animal?
‘We have paid for our tickets; we are entitled to do whatever we want,’ shout the ‘me-first’ boo-ers. Do you have no consideration for others and for how they might feel about your threatening, coercive behaviour? There is a problem here, of course, in that part of the alleged justification for such behaviour is that of a commercial transaction. All the more reason, ultimately, to rid art of such alien concerns. Wagner’s vision of a festival theatre, free in every sense to all, is what we should be aiming for. Wildly utopian? Why? We offer free admission to our great museums and galleries. Why should music and theatre be different? The sums are miniscule when contrasted with what we spend on bombing to death fellow human beings in Iraq, on nuclear weapons, or on bailing out the banks. Ridding performances of those who consider their wealth offers them entitlement would be a victory in every sense. In the meantime, however, kindly offer some common courtesy towards other audience members. And yes, that also involves refraining from applause or other noise during an act, from coughing, chattering, allowing your mobile telephone to ring, etc., etc. Should you claim otherwise, then you really would seem to have no conception of art and of why it might matter, let alone of how one might behave decently towards other human beings. You are no more entitled to force your pathetic, caricatured attempts at ‘masculinity’ upon others in this arena than you are in any other.
For booing is not ‘refreshing’, ‘liberating’, ‘valid’, or any other such nonsense; it is a form of violence which should have no role in civil society. There are now more opportunities than ever before for every member of the audience and for interested parties beyond to contribute to appreciation, discussion, criticism, even downright demolition. Social media buzz after every performance. You can even set up your own blog; I am anything but a technological mastermind, and I managed to do so. Sometimes we may be guilty of excessive brutality in such arenas; it is a danger of which we should be mindful. That is really quite different, however, from the fascistic – let us lose the earlier ‘quasi’ – behaviour increasingly turning theatres into bear-pits.