Earlier this week, after the curtain had come down on the Royal Opera's new staging of Eugene Onegin, Twitter was alight with stories of booing from the first night crowd. Then one starts to hear that actually, it wasn't a wholesale house boo but more like a little cabal of booers in a corner somewhere. Nobody threw fruit either. Since then, Kasper Holten's production has been widely reviewed and whilst opinion is mixed, there appears to be nothing within the production that warrants any kind of outrage. The concept wasn't way out and the idea of Onegin and Tatyana playing viewers of their own story is not a new one. Indeed, in our Danny Slater directed production in 2012, we had that very device at the heart of our show. One could argue that ours was more subversive than Holten's given the transposition of the final ball scene to post revolutionary Russia, dancers giving way to workers fluttering and buzzing about the stage in front of a huge Lenin portrait during the Pollonaise. In our case, the audience didn't boo but there was a distinct frostiness on some evenings (and that wasn't the weather). Despite this, it was voted the audience's favourite production of the season.
I always wonder why it is that audiences boo. Opera audiences can get extremely cross about interpretations of their favourite operas, especially the classics. I don't really want to address why they do that - a whole other discussion is needed for that - but am more concerned with the need, the irresistible urge even, to be outraged by a director's interpretation and to give voice to that frustration. Personally, I think diminutive, faux-polite applause is far more withering an expression of opinion. Booing is of course our favourite display of disgust or disapproval. The pantomime booing of Scarpia or any other "bad guy" during curtain calls, followed quickly by the rise in amplitude of applause as a sort of "nah, we were only joking, you were great" is standard practice now it seems so booing isn't always angry. But I don't think I have ever heard booing in a theatre where updates and challenging concepts are day to day occurrences.
Having said that, I don't recall ever hearing a chorus of boos at OHP. Perhaps the odd bovine expression from the back of the house. If the audience don't like something or have a particular disregard for the production they tend to just reduce the intensity of their clapping as the artistic team take their bows on first night.
Booing is an odd thing really. It is the individual saying "I am not fooled by any of this, the rest of you may be cheering and clapping but I'm having none of it" and as such is a form of impolite arrogance. The booer wants the rest of us happy clappers to know that we are idiots and have been duped. He will disregard the performance of singers and everybody else in order to let us know that what has been done to his favoured opera transcends anything else and he refuses to see beyond this standard view.
If I had a pound for every person who telephoned me in a spluttering rage to complain about one production or other I would be a wealthy man but it is always an interesting opportunity to discuss the person's approach to opera-going. Quite often they will start with the words "the singing and the playing were wonderful, but..." Sometimes they even get their complaint in before they have visited the show; a patron wrote to me saying that he had seen the paintings (we regularly commission to illustrate our operas) and for Forza del Destino he had noticed there were Kalashikov rifles in the image and there was no way he was going to see a production like that. He relented when I explained that in fact the guns depicted were original period Spanish pistols and wrote to me afterwards to say how much he had enjoyed the show.
Oddly, some of our most acclaimed productions have been met with opprobrium which just goes to prove the old adage about opinions and fundaments. I recall a piqued looking lady outside of the theatre before the second performance of our highly praised 2003 production of Fidelio and on enquiry discovered she was selling her ticket because her friend had told her it was "modern". But my favourite is probably the email, at 7am on the morning after our 2008 Tosca first night, when a High Court judge (he had taken the trouble to advise me of that) complained bitterly that not only was it the worst production of Tosca he had ever seen but it was the worst production of ANY opera he had ever seen. Furthermore his companion, who was Italian, agreed with him. I don't know if he booed but his splenetic email suggested he wanted too. In fact, Franco Zeffirelli issued forth loudly in condemnation of that production in Corriere della Sera and he hadn't even seen it! Of course, we know that the production went on to be praised almost universally in the highest possible terms.
There is something reassuring about the strength of feeling people have for opera and we should never dismiss it - ever - but I do wish people would just vote with their feet rather than making everybody else in the house feel as though their appreciation or otherwise of a performance is worthless.
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