Boo This Post

Terry Teachout, meditating on a rare outburst of booing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, wonders if classical music and theater are being diminished by a superabundance of standing ovations and a scarcity of negative feedback. What if theater and orchestra audiences behaved more like blog commenters? Not too long ago, they did; in 1849, to pick an extreme example, a full-blown riot broke out over a production of Macbeth in New York City. Let’s reach for a middle ground in the comments section here, please. [%comments]


km

As a person who recently graduated from a music school with a concentration on performing classical music, I can attest to the difficulty of the situation of auditioning for an orchestra as talked about in #15. There are Julliard graduates out there who have difficulty finding jobs in their field.

The comparison I would make to theatre and classical music would not be blogging; it would be sporting events (I believe in Freakonomics, the publication, the argument for athletes deserving the money they make based on the small percentage of the population that can do what they do is made -- why don't classical musicians make that much? -- but I digress).

I'd be okay with booing during a musical production -- some good musicians in good orchestras can get complacent over the years -- in the same vein that I would accept cheering in the middle of a piece. When opera first came to be, people would eat food, talk during the opera, cheer and boo. Now, all those things are considered exceptionally rude, but it was originally a social event for the common person. In fact, opera in the 18th and 19th centuries always sounded to me much like going to a college sporting event. If we can get people who aren't experts in 'opera' or 'theatre' or 'art' music to attend these events (and the 'common person' really doesn't attend these events any more, but do attend sporting events) under the guise of an old-school relaxed approach to audience etiquette, I think it could help to revitalize a dying art form.

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Gene

I think the problem is one of discernment. As others have stated, many people rarely go to the theatre, so if it is good, they think it deserves a standing ovation. Most people don't have any idea that a standing ovation is supposed to be for a truly outstanding performance. I too get very annoyed with every show, no matter what it is, getting a standing ovation. (church musical, high school band, Les Miserables, local city orchestra, etc)... I think it goes back to another problem with society today which is the extreme concern for making certain that people 'feel good'. Thus the lowering of criteria for good grades, honor rolls, etc (and the plethora of "my kid is" insert whatever wonderful group they are in...).

lawson

There are too many standing ovations, and I think Daniel Reeves' explanation was excellent. But I'm not entirely sure that blog comment sections are all that different. I often dismayed by how often comments are an exercise in groupthink, with contrarian voices derided as trolls. Or, worse, simply not allowed to participate - the blog owner can delete whichever comments he or she wants. I suppose this isn't surprising: it's well documented that people seek to read material that reinforces their views, which means for the most part they'll read blogs they agree with.

This isn't usually the case on this blog: there is often a fairly robust exchange of views. But it's all too common a pitfall of the blogosphere.

Maurits

If it's really terrible, I leave during the break.
Booing just doesn't make sense, it's like people complaining about or even being offended by TV. etc etc. Change channels, switch it off, leave.

Daybreak

As an apprentice at a "prestigious" theatre we were forced to participate in the following exercise.

The room is dark.
Everyone has torches.
You ad-lib, and people light your performance with their torches.
If they get bored, they turn their torch off.

I can tell it was completely crushing. But very honest feedback, and as a performer, very useful.

HW

Booing is outright classless, I believe, but I agree that standing ovations occur *far* too regularly (I'm not exactly sure why our utmost respect goes to the arts anyhow). If I don't like something I simply won't clap and just leave, sooner or later depending on what kind of postmodern dreck it is.

People would give Laundry: The Musical a standing ovation, true, but booing is just a bit rude, don't you think?

Cory

A few points:

1.) I'd like to boo anyone who insists on yelling "bravo" at shows, particularly when they are referring to a woman or a group of people. If you don't know what it means, don't yell it.

2.) I'd like to punch anyone who yells "get in the hole" at a golf event, partciuarly on a flippin' approach shot.

3.) Boo this post and boo this comment.

notmelbrooks

A few years back I went to a performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto . It was performed at a summer Mozart festival by a very prestigious orchestra and one of the most popular concert violinist, It was the single worst musical performance I had ever seen. It was as if the principals (conductor and soloist) had not only not rehearsed but, had not even discussed how they would execute this familiar piece. The audience clapped when it was over. I clapped politely with them. I regret to this day that I did not BOO . Just to let them (the performers [and, the rest of the audience]) know that somebody knew what they had pulled over on us.
I looked for a review in the newspaper over the next few days (to confirm my judgment.) Not even a mention. Even the reviewers would rather stay silent than tell the truth..

Thom

This is part an obvious downward trend in expectations.

As Americans, we love lowering the bar: No-score kids sports, automatic tipping regardless of service, excessive ovation (Remember Obama's 20 minute speech interrupted by about 50 minutes of applause back in February?), subprime lending, automatic bonuses, and the worst...participation trophies.

Despite this general homogenization of our society, real world competition will continue to do what it does so well: Highlight real stars, and help us forget about the rest.

Mike

It's similar to how every concert I go to involves an encore. 2 sets and encore. That completely defeats the purpose of the encore. How pathetic is it that people expect it, and are even disappointing if its not a great one?

Annie

I think that Teachout, as well as many commenters to this post, have forgotten that the performers in theater and opera live in the same culture (often) as the audience. They know, probably better than anyone in the audience, that almost every show now receives a standing ovation and that people rarely boo. Therefore, they can re-adjust their expectations and evaluations of audience responses. Trying to go back to a different standard of audience response seems just bizarre to me.

Sebastian

In Germany (Europe?) booing is pretty much reserved for the premiere - people boo when the stage director comes up for the curtain call. That's not at all rare, though.
There would only very rarely be cases when professional musicians or actors are truly terrible.
Regular perfomances are never booed - for the reasons given by jonathan (Nr. 7)

Chet

I would like to provide a counterpoint, or another perspective at least, to those that see the decline of our civilization in the preponderance of standing ovations. I live and teach theatre in South Carolina, where many school districts lack a single qualified theatre teacher in any level of the public school system. Likewise 3-5 schools may share a single music or art teacher. These students are usually the most likely to give an"automatic" standing ovation at a live performance.

I too used to be offended by their lowered expectations and over-appreciation of mediocrity until I realized that their reaction was not the result of their ignorance but rather a result of their unfamiliarity and surprise at the immediacy of live performance. Our society has spent the last 20 years stressing the importance of math and science in schools and isolating the arts in "magnet" and "governor's" schools and therefore reducing significantly the exposure of general student populations to live performance and creating an isolated and elitist arts class. It is this choice our society has made that effects audience behavior, not the individual audience members ignorance.

I long for the day when our conversations about education shift back from a work-force-training model to one concerned with outcomes based on critical thinking, thoughtful debate, citizenship, and responsibility. Those students will end up becoming art lovers, scientists, mathematicians, politicians, economists, etc that we all can be proud of.

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kristine

"(I believe in Freakonomics, the publication, the argument for athletes deserving the money they make based on the small percentage of the population that can do what they do is made - why don't classical musicians make that much? - but I digress)."

classical musicians don't produce a product that the masses are willing to pay for (as much $ and with as much frequency) as do the athletes. higher demand, higher pay.

they may be just as talented in their field, but the dollars don't follow . . . when the symphony is able to fill a 100k seat stadium @ $40 per seat 10x per year (in addition to all the merchandise sales, which I believe accounts for more $ than ticket sales) . . . then we'll talk.

decklap

As an actor I think the prospect of audiences vocalizing their dislikes as well as their likes would ultimately be good for theatre in general. The actor/audience relationship has grown artificial with the expectation of polite response.

--E

My experience as a subscriber at the NY Philharmonic has been a little different. There are distinct codes obvious to frequent symphony-goers (and doubtless obvious to the orchestra as well).

There are always three curtain calls. It's so rote, we all slow our applause, wait for the soloist to come back out, and then regain volume. The fall-off at the end of the third call is sharp--everyone knows it's done. To have the audience maintain their volume through three calls is high praise. In rare instances the crowd has shouted for a fourth call--the true mark of excellence!

The "boo" equivalent is obvious, as well. I've been to lackluster performances, and the audience gives lackluster, "polite" applause. The lacuna is telling.

Count Impressario

How would any capitalist endeavor work if feedback was removed from the equation. You paid your some major cash, if the performance is bad, you should Boo. European opera fans know this. It has nothing to do with class.

Vinod

Movies are the new opera! The boos of 19th century theaters are now happening at the movies.

I guess booing is a privilege reserved for only mass-scale entertainment mediums, and not applicable to niche experiences like the opera / philharmonic.

Benjamin Winters

A few years ago I was at the Kennedy Center hearing the premiere of an orchestral work. As the performance progressed I became more and more agitated by the music and by, what was in my perception, a total lack of artistic intent. My visceral repulsion was so strong that as the composer took his bow, I booed. When everything had calmed down for intermission my musician friends shunned me and one of the ushers scolded me saying that she had never ever seen a reaction such as mine. It wasn't that I didn't like his artistic statement, but that his offering of hokey entertainment was contributing to the decline of western art music. The same can be said of any audience who doesn't care enough to react genuinely.