Monday, 29 September 2008

I wrote the following piece earlier this year as a result of receiving somewhat mixed reaction to my performance of Calatrava/ Guardiano in Verdi's La Forza del Destino at the Vienna Staatsoper.
To err is human; to boo bovine
Last Saturday I sang in the first night of a new production of Verdi's La Forza del Destino at Vienna's Staatsoper. The performance, all things considered, went very well and I was happy with the way I sang. I say 'all things considered' as a way of acknowledging the strange creature that is a first night. It's the performance which has the most pressure attached to it. For the first time the paying public get to view and hear the results of six weeks of rehearsal, and the critics, god bless'em, get to practise their craft and earn their crust in a parasitical mirror-image of what you as a performer are also doing. Jules Renard once said about his profession of writing that it was one of those occupations in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none: singing is another. In this instance we had in addition the not insignificant matter of a live TV broadcast to contend with, as if the usual first night nerves were not enough!
As a seasoned operatic pro of course I'm used to having to deal with these situations and the pressures they necessarily impose. However, it remains a fact that first nights are rarely if ever the best performances, partly because of the aforementioned pressures but also more obviously because one hasn't yet performed the piece often enough to feel totally comfortable with its varying demands (both the soprano and baritone were essaying their roles for the first time, as was I). There's not much anyone can do to alter this status quo, unless a 'preview' system were instituted similar to what holds sway in the straight theatre - an impractical solution for a run of maybe only six performances. Most of my colleagues would share my opinion that first nights are to be endured rather than enjoyed, before things settle down and normality returns for the rest of the run.
The Viennese public are a discerning bunch and difficult to please. They take their opera very seriously: I can't think of another country which would issue a commemorative stamp to mark a production's premier, as was the case with this one! A heavy hand of tradition hovers somewhat malevolently over proceedings at the Staatsoper. Many punters have been opera-goers for 40 - 50 years and have a huge 'back catalogue' of performances to compare you with, and inevitably nostalgia for the 'good old days' tends to favour the names of the past over their modern counterparts - well, that's my excuse anyway!
Another thing happened to me on Saturday: I was booed. Now in the whole scheme of things there are many fates that could befall one infinitely worse than a few saddos making strange noises at ones curtain call, so I don't want to get this out of proportion or sound too self-pitying. At least (ungenerous as this may sound) I wasn't the only one to receive an aural thumbs down: the same vote of thanks was given to the tenor and the buffo-baritone, and the production team were all greeted by the now depressingly familiar fusillade of booing as reward for their efforts in updating Verdi's arguably most problematic oeuvre.
This, I must admit, unsettling experience - as I'm not used to beeing booed, honestly! - got me thinking. What kind of person boos and why, or more specifically, what makes a person believe it acceptable behaviour to give voice to their displeasure? Is it the only-to-be-expected corollary to the action of applause and shouting 'bravo' where praise is deemed appropriate? (When Pavarotti was asked by Larry King why opera audiences booed he replied: "Because they applaud so much"....) Do booers believe that by paying for a ticket they have carte blanche to express their opinions in any way they see fit, just as if they were at a football match or other sporting event?
As a performer I would never dream of booing someone else, but more importantly as a human being with, I hope, an adequate sense of goodwill towards my fellow men, I would never consider it either. So here goes: in my admittedly partial and typically 'middle-english' opinion, it is a boorish, rude, crass, obnoxious affectation which has no justification in 99 out of 100 cases. A Viennese friend and regular operagoer since the war admitted to me that she has only ever booed a singer once in that entire time, and only because it was blindingly obvious to all that the wretched fellow was completely drunk!
I cannot offer inebriation as an excuse for my reception unless it was the booers who were squiffy, but I remain perplexed as to why I was treated in this way. In Italy, again in 'the good old days',  it was expedient to pay off Signor Claque to ensure a favourable reaction from the 'loggionisti', but I didn't think such traditions still existed least of all in organised and gemuetlich Vienna!
If you're not impressed with a singer try the following: SHUT UP. You don't even have to revert to the default position of unenthusiastic clapping. Keep your hands apart until someone better appears from behind the curtain.
Without wanting to antagonise certain elements of the opera-going public any more than I apparently have done already (certainly here in Vienna), can I posit the possibility that those who boo are suffering a kind of mental illness? In adopting a different aesthetic standard to the vast majority of their fellow audience, and whilst 'applauding' their right not necessarily to follow the general consensus, is there not a touch of hubristic megalomania in their actions? I'm only asking....
Of course we all have off days and the opportunites for something to go wrong on the opera stage are perhaps more numerous than any kind of live performance, baring tight-rope walking, lion-taming and knife-throwing! 'There's many a slip twixt conductor and lip', you might say. But I'm always struck by the irony that, after spending an evening trying to make the most beautiful sounds possible, one can be greeted at its conclusion by some of the ugliest.

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