Zebras at the Opera House

Last night, I eagerly tuned in to the BBC Radio 3 live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot.  It’s one of my favourite operas.  I didn’t listen to it till the very end, though, because I wasn’t grabbed by the performance.  I found Nina Stemme’s Wagnerian soprano too heavy and too lacking in crystalline quality for Turandot.  I felt that her diction was a little sloppy and, on several occasions, I thought I heard her swallow consonants and leave out vowels.  Marco Berti’s tenor, for me, was too thin, too deprived of richness, too throaty for Calaf.  I also didn’t care for the pace of Paolo Carignani’s conducting.  I found it too fast and lacking in drama.

Some of the above comments are a matter of personal taste and preference.  However, when the Met audience applauded uproariously, sounding as though they were about to bring the house down, I suddenly realised something: the audience always applauds uproariously at the Met or Covent Garden.  It’s almost expected.  It’s totally predictable.  And I wondered: is it a matter of manners or lack of discernment? Does the audience take its cue from the critics? Does fame equal quality, equal wild applause?

There was a time when audiences would hurl tomatoes, boo and hiss at performances and performers who failed to live up to their standards.  I don’t agree with such abusive behaviour.  Of course I don’t.  My many years working in the theatre has taught me just how hard everyone involved in a production works, and their efforts should be met with respect.  But, surely, it should also be an audience member’s privilege to express disappointment with a show or a performer, if s/he feels that the quality is inferior to expectations.  After, all, shouldn’t clapping and shouting “bravo!” be like restaurant tipping, i.e. subject to the standard of service received? There are many respectful ways an audience can convey the fact that it doesn’t like something.  Not clapping, for example.  Another, more drastic, expression could be leaving during the interval.  I know some people do that, but then how come whenever I attend an opera or listen to a live radio broadcast, there’s always – always – such roaring applause? Sometimes I almost wonder if it’s pre-recorded.

* * *

I first started going to the opera when I was sixteen, in Rome.  The Teatro dell’Opera hadn’t been revamped yet, and much of the upholstery was the worse for wear. The place was drab. On the rare occasion when a famous singer was scheduled to appear, you would have to start queuing for tickets at the crack of dawn.  The first person to arrive would take it upon him or herself to tear up little pieces of paper with numbers scribbled on them, and hand them out to anyone joining the queue.

I have fond memories of many a Sunday afternoon spent in the galleria, surrounded by characters who lived and breathed music, and were not afraid to express their opinion, even in voices that carried across the  auditorium in the silence that preceded the opening bars of the second or third act.

A ticket in the gods cost less than admission to the luxurious Barberini cinema, where the latest films were shown first, so I went very often.  Moreover, since I mostly went everywhere on my own, I found it much less intimidating to go the opera than the cinema.  Nobody up in the galleria found it odd that a teenage girl should turn up without parents, friends or boyfriend.  Before leaving home, I would wrap a piece of milk chocolate in foil and put it in my coat pocket.  By the interval, it would have softened exactly to my liking, and I would snack on it while listening to the other music lovers provide an in-depth, no-prisoners-taken, critique of the performance.  Mostly, they were music students from the Santa Cecilia music academy, and other, older, opera aficionados who could not afford a seat in the stalls.

In any case, the stalls were where the fur coats sat.  And the fur coats, we galleria regulars all knew, would applaud at anything that moved on the stage.

I remember a Rossini Semiramide with a spectacular set, and a Massenet Manon (which, my galleria betters, assured me, sounded far better in Italian than in French) where Raina Kabaivanska’s dress caught on the banister of a staircase, preventing her from walking down until rescued by a slow-on-the-uptake Des Grieux.  Then, Italy being well known for its art, its fashion, but also for its frequent strikes, there was the time when I attended a chorus-free performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

My first opera was Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.  My heart pounded at the opening bars.  The singing was excellent.  The set, however, was another matter.  At one point, the curtains swished open on several plywood or cardboard cut-out horses.  One of them had an unusual pattern of pink and orange stripes.  The conductor raised his baton.  The man next to me was watching through his binoculars. His voice carried loud and clear across the void.

“Look at that – they’ve even got zebras!”

The conductor lowered his baton amid a crescendo of shushing from the fur coats down in the abyss, and supportive giggles from the galleria occupants.

Now that‘s what I call audience power.

Please also read ‘Turandot – a Story of Redemption’

Scribe Doll

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17 Responses to Zebras at the Opera House

  1. How wonderful! And what rich memories! Most of the performances I attended were pretty trouble free (with the exception of a performance of “Cosi Fan Tutte” I attended in Budapest: the baritone had laryngitis and they couldn’t find a replacement during an intermission that lasted 40 minutes, so he returned to the stage and did his part mezzo voce). But I still recall listening, with great interest, to an account of the first performance the “The Barber of Seville” in which a cat suddenly walked across the stage. What can I say? Anything can happen during a live performance!

    Keep the memories coming! I love them!

    • Scribe Doll says:

      A cat across the stage? How wonderful! I once saw a performance by the Israel Philharmonic on TV, and a ginger cat suddenly ran across the stage there.

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Barbara.

  2. Katia- you bring up a subject my husband and I frequently discuss after attending our local symphony, plays and other live performances. Everyone always claps and shouts bravo! at every single performance, even when it is lackluster. What happens down here in the South is every performance gets a standing ovation. Again- even when the performance was mediocre at best. We thought it was because people down here in our little burg are perhaps less than discerning. Or maybe they think it’s what they are supposed to do at the symphony or live theatre performance, but it drives us mad. Interesting that you notice this trend in big cities as well. I hope it’s not part of the general dumbing down of everything to be equal with American Idol and the like.

    • Scribe Doll says:

      So it’s not just us? Perhaps, as you say, it is the general dumbing down. But perhaps it’s the general repressed stress suddenly bursting out? A friend voiced this theory. AS you say, though, it can be very annoying.

  3. Hi, Katia. I started out watching operas on PBS when I was a teen, and I was fascinated by them, but since I had nothing to compare them to, I just enjoyed them as well as I could. When I went to grad school in Toronto, the COC (Canadian Opera Company) was very fine, and also not prohibitively expensive, as it was within the means of an average student like me to get a season ticket a little farther back in the stalls. It was great! Touogh I always tried to wear something as nice as I could manage, it was a mix of dowagers in tiaras, young people in blue jeans, and men and women in every sort of evening dress, even just ordinary suits and skirts. A truly democratic society for the appreciation of opera. But I could in no way afford the Metropolitan Opera down in the States now, so I was lucky that a friend told me about the online option. For $14.99 a month (or the cheaper rate of $149.99 a year, if you buy it all at once), you can get online access to watch and listen to more than 500 different operas and versions of operas from the Met stage. It has been a blessing for me, and I recommend it, because you can watch whenever you want, and if (God forbid) something interrupts you, you can always resume or watch again later at no extra charge. I don’t know how many times I’ve watch “Camen” with Elena Garanca and Roberto Alagna, two of my favorites. I also recommend the (I believe pre-2013) versions of “Turandot.”
    The website to sign up is called simply metopera.org ; I hope you can get it. It’s well worth it. Above all, happy opera-going! I envy you some of your adventures with things in the actual countries of great operas.

  4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06z255s
    I’m just listening to Today’s Start of the Week on Radio 4 and thought it might interest you.
    Language and Reinvention
    Tom Sutcliffe talks to the violinist Edward Dusinberre about interpreting Beethoven’s string quartets.

  5. dechareli says:

    Loved that one. The audience in Luxembourg is bewildering at times. Standing ovations for a good, but not excellent performance,and standard polite applause for excellent performances.

    • Scribe Doll says:

      How peculiar. I’ve never been to Luxembourg, but I picture the audiences as very polite and discriminating. At least their responses vary. In London, they applaud just about anything.

  6. evanatiello says:

    As usual, you have transported me once again! This time to the opera in Rome. Brava! (incidentally, I am on my feet…)

  7. Christine Hartelt says:

    I admire your courage as a teenager. Your writing is crystalline as always. The zebras anecdote made me laugh. Thank you again for a delightful essay!

    • Scribe Doll says:

      It wasn’t courage. I didn’t make friends easily, and those I did make, weren’t interested in opera.

      • Christine Hartelt says:

        I understand. My teen years were very lonely. I was painfully shy and just not interested in parties that served beer. I enjoyed reading, writing, and learning languages more than anything. I’m glad there is life after high school or “O” levels! 🙂 I’m also glad that you have found so many kindred spirits who share your love of the arts.

      • Scribe Doll says:

        I wasn’t so much shy as a bit of a snob (surprise, surprise). I hope you have the opportunity to listen to some good concerts on the radio :–)

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