Stop Playing with Your Ticket: An Investigation of Concert-going Practices

All right, I admit it: I fidget. I don’t always realize that I am doing it. Moreover, it is hardly noticeable. I don’t move around endlessly in my seat or bounce my leg up and down as though someone gave me a pogo stick as a prosthetic limb. But I do fidget a bit, albeit (I think) subtly. In movie theaters, in symphonic concerts, and even at the opera, I tend to softly rub my ticket between the fingers and thumb of a single hand. It doesn’t make a sound, I swear. And no one ever notices. That is, no one ever did notice until a couple of months ago at the opera.

I was sitting in an aisle seat, enjoying a production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, and unbeknownst to me, I was abrading my ticket stub silently with the hand that was nearest to the aisle. The volume of the orchestra was overwhelming; the soprano was belting out one of the most virtuosic moments within her long aria. No one could have possibly heard my little ticket slowly giving way to the forces of friction. And yet . . . someone a good 10 rows behind me felt it necessary to get up out of her seat, walk down the aisle, and ask me to stop playing with my ticket.

Now, I was somewhat vindicated by the fact that everyone else seemed to think that she was the one causing the disturbance. But still. Apparently, this woman felt that the opera hall was an area so sacrosanct that any distraction, no matter how trivial, was simply too much to be tolerated. Never mind the fact that a cell phone (my personal pet peeve) seems to go off every performance I attend (as it did that evening but out of the reach, I suppose, of the vigilante operagoer). Because I was within sight of this self-appointed paragon of concert-going virtue, it was necessary that I be taught a lesson.

Well, lessons beget lessons and one intervention deserves another. This incident inevitably brought me to consider once again the beautifully contingent nature of concert-going etiquette. Although the modern concert experience is one step away (in many cases) from mummification, it was not always thus. The ritualization of the concert and the quasi-sacral status it has attained is a somewhat regrettable inheritance of the later 19th century. I invite you now to consider how it was in other times, and how the music and we might be better served in ours.

Let us begin with opera, which from the 17th to the mid-18th century more closely approximated a modern-day baseball game than an evening at the Metropolitan Opera in the 21st century. Although Italy was the birthplace of opera, in the 18th century it was a well-worn quip that opera was better seen than heard in that country, in large part owing to the behavior of the audience. Samuel Sharp (an English surgeon who attempted to cure Handel as the composer descended into blindness) reported that it was “so much the fashion at Naples, and, indeed, through all Italy, to consider the Opera as a place of rendezvous and visiting, that they do not seem in the least to attend to the musick [sic], but laugh and talk through the whole performance, without any restraint.”

Other accounts paint a somewhat brighter picture but opera attendance at that time was far removed from current notions of concert etiquette. This may be partly due to the fact that audience members went to see the same production many times in close succession — something that is nearly impossible today given the steep price of admission. When I want to get good tickets to see a few operas during a given season, I have to mortgage half my belongings, thereby obviating the possibility of attending too many repeat performances. Three centuries ago, hearing an opera multiple times was commonplace. To an extent this reflects the musical production and culture of the time: an opera company (unlike today) did not repeat the same musical warhorses ad infinitum. Every season brought newly composed works. Operas are long affairs; if a listener was to get to know the latest hit, attending multiple performances was necessary. However, in this case familiarity did not so much breed contempt as mild indifference.

Eighteenth-century operagoers often ate meals during performances (certain snacks such as nuts and fruits were sold on the premises for this purpose just as one can buy a hotdog and a beer at a baseball game today), played cards, held discussions, and carried on extra-marital affairs. The lights were not extinguished; indeed, those audience members who chose to follow the opera more closely could read the printed libretto (the text being sung) with the aid of a nearby candle. One of my favorite opera anecdotes humorously clarifies the potential danger of the latter accoutrement. An elderly English gentleman made a habit of attending the opera with his young and alluring mistress. In order to increase their proximity, the gentleman would hold the libretto close to the light, purportedly to prevent the object of his desire from having to strain her delicate eyes. Apparently on one occasion his eyes strayed from the printed word (one can only imagine the substituted object of their gaze) and the libretto, having inadvertently increased its proximity to the candle and no doubt inspired by the burning ardor of the old gentleman, caught flame.

It would, of course, be a mistake to assume total indifference on the part of the audience. Perhaps, the baseball analogy may be extended as an illustration. There are many lulls in baseball. When I used to attend games, I would talk to my friends during such moments along with the majority of the people around me. But when a notable player came up to bat, everyone sat up and took notice. In the 18th century, a similar tendency could be observed among operagoers. There were star singers and the audience responded to their celebrity.

Indeed, some singers were highly lauded for their physical abilities in the manner in which one might praise an athlete. Charles Burney, a keen observer of 18th century musical life, described the virtuosity of the castrato (a male singer castrated before his voice changed in order to maintain the high, brilliant tone of a boy but powered by the lungs of a full-grown man) Farinelli in terms that closely approximate descriptions of boxing. During a particular aria accompanied by the trumpet, Farinelli and the trumpeter would enter into a competition, each attempting to outdo the other in terms of virtuosity and physical/musical prowess. The various members of the audience would choose sides and cheer for their hero. Finally, both performers seemed too tired to go on, when, Burney recounts, “Farinelli with a smile on his countenance, shewing [sic] he had only been sporting with [the trumpeter] all this time, broke out all at once in the same breath, with fresh vigour, [sic] and . . . was at last silenced only by the acclamations of the audience.” The pugilistic terms of the account underscore the showmanship and the audience involvement so typical of the 18th-century opera experience.

Sometimes the audience became too involved. The Royal Academy of Music in London (established by the nobility in order to secure the finest possible opera performances) hired a famous castrato (Senesino) and two prima donnas. Now prima donna (literally, “first woman”) means just that: she was the female star of the company and always played the female lead role. Prima donnas were kind of like the Highlander: there could only be one. But the Royal Academy hired two: Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni. Inevitably, members of the audience chose their favorite. Supporters of Bordoni exorbitantly praised their star and denigrated Cuzzoni in equal measure while supporters of Cuzzoni saw little merit in Bordoni’s abilities while remaining confident that their heroine embodied the purest vocal presence. Such differences of opinion led to disagreements and disagreements led to fisticuffs.

David Hume once proclaimed “de gustibus non est disputandum” (“there is no disputing about matters of taste”); apparently, the proponents of Bordoni and Cuzzoni would not have agreed and they were willing to buttress their arguments with body blows. The animosity extended (not surprisingly) to the singers themselves and a performance of Handel’s Astianate in 1727 famously imploded when a duet between the two sopranos devolved into a hair-pulling fight.

Perhaps the worst place to attend opera in the early 18th century was in Venice where it was a custom among the locals to spit down upon those sitting in the parterre seats (the rather expensive seats being generally occupied by foreigners). J.F.A. von Uffenbach related a wonderful story that exemplifies the old adage: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Writing to a friend about the second time he attended an opera in Venice, he wrote: “Fearing lest we should be mistreated and spat upon as we were the first time, we took an inexpensive loge [that is, a seat on a higher level] and proceeded to avenge ourselves upon those in the parterre according to the local custom.”

The standard account (largely true in outline if not always in detail) is that all of this changed with Richard Wagner in the mid-19th century. The lights were dimmed in order to focus one’s attention on the illuminated stage; the orchestra was lowered to erase the bodily motions of the musicians that might distract from the pageantry of the proscenium; Wagner even promoted the construction of a theater that would minimize one’s ability to see other members of the audience, thus eliminating distraction and conversation. Wagner believed that this immersion in the magic of opera was to have religious overtones. Parsifal, his final opera, was meant to be something of a musical sacrament. One legend has it that during a performance of one of Wagner’s operas, a man in the audience cried out “Bravo!” only to be shushed by the Wagnerians — the recalcitrant listener was supposedly Wagner himself.

Opera performances in the 21st century are not quite this austere and it is not at all uncommon to hear a patron overcome with admiration call out “Bravo!” At times, this well-worn tradition has some intriguing consequences. Toward the close of Zerbinetta’s long and impressive coloratura aria in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, there is a passage that sounds very much like a conclusion. I have seen the opera three times in performance at this point and it never fails: the audience gives vent to its exuberance before the end of the piece, totally obscuring Zerbinetta’s final phrases. Certain individuals recognize their mistake and strain to hear her melodious close but only manage to see her mouth moving. The audience finally quiets down in time to hear the soft closing orchestral chords and immediately erupt once again with applause.

It invariably happens and yet it has never troubled me. If I want to hear that phrase, I have the compact disc at home. Hearing the audience react to this virtuosic feat with the appropriate rapture and then feeling the palpable attempt to wrest a little more pleasure from Zerbinetta’s voice while realizing the utter futility of the endeavor is a poignant type of beauty unattainable when listening alone to a recording. It somehow marks the evanescent magic possible during a performance when the audience ceases to worry about fulfilling their Pavlovian obligations (final cadence = time to applause) and begins to get deeply involved.

Unfortunately, whatever mild liberality is found in the opera seems to be wholly absent from most symphonic concerts. Here, the rules of etiquette are often particularly stringent. We applaud when the concertmaster comes out to tune the orchestra. We applaud when the conductor appears. And then we sit in silence. If the piece is a multi-movement work, we are not to applaud during the breaks between movements. During Mozart’s time, Parisian audiences burst into applause whenever they heard a passage that pleased them during an individual movement. Now we are to restrain our expressions of gratitude and wonder until the end of the entire work.

This is not to say that the audience manages silence during the breaks between movements. Quite the opposite. After each movement of a symphony the majority of the audience bursts back into corporeality to succumb to a collective convulsion of coughing. Suddenly half of the listeners (all of whom had maintained a strict code of silence during the performance and seemed perfectly well at ease) turn out to be tubercular. We are instantly transported from the solemn hush of meditative concentration to the infirmary of a 19th-century sanatorium.

I took my brother to an orchestra concert when he was very young and he was so taken with the first movement of a Mahler symphony that he cheerfully applauded after the final chord; our neighbors immediately remonstrated with him as they hacked vehemently into the backs of the heads of the people sitting ahead of us. No demonstrations of delight please, but feel free to cough up a lung.

Now, do not misunderstand me. I am not advocating that we return to the concert-going practices of yesteryear. I have no desire to attend the opera while those around me cavort, converse, and copulate. Nor do I wish to be the unwitting victim of malicious expectoration. And, come to think of it, if my fidgeting with the ticket really disturbed that woman, I can willingly desist. However, I insist that there must be a way to fully enjoy a musical concert without undergoing virtual entombment and I abhor any situation in which genuine enthusiasm is stifled by stodgy routine and mindless force of habit. Therefore, I have a few modest suggestions for those who wish to find a better way to enjoy concert music:

1. Smaller venues: For those living in or around New York City, Miller Theatre is an ideal concert hall. It is intimate, has wonderful acoustics, and consistently features performers who are more laid back and open to engaging in a true experience with the audience. There are other venues of its ilk. Find them. I attended a piano concert last year at Miller where the pianist actually spoke to the audience from the stage. If such subversive behavior continues we may bring communication back to the concert hall!

2. Hear new music: Yes, there are actual living composers out there trying to get their work heard. If you want to really be engaged with a piece of music, try listening to something that you haven’t heard over and over again, something for which you do not have a ready-made comment. You may hate it, but you will have a reaction, as will the rest of the audience. I always have the best after-concert discussions (sometimes with total strangers) after performances of new music.

3. Go to hear minor orchestras: Many smaller towns and cities have orchestras. They are often composed of talented performers who, for whatever reason, did not choose to pursue music as their primary career. The performances can be exhilarating and there have been many occasions in which I have felt a true buzz around me. The people there really wanted to play this music and the audience really wanted to hear it. I used to give lectures prior to the concerts of a minor orchestra. The attendees were bright, interested, and engaged. They were people absorbed with the music and insistent upon pursuing that absorption.

4. Go to hear concerts at local colleges and universities: If you really want to hear the future of concert music, attend these concerts. These are the musicians who are now up and coming. Whether you hear a cello recital of Bach or the latest composition by a student composer, you are hearing someone finding his way or establishing his voice within music and there is little in the musical world that is more exciting than that. Should you hear a concert of compositions by student composers (particularly graduate students), stick around after the performance. There is often a reception and the composers are generally very gregarious (it is in their interest to be so). Ask them questions. Don’t feign appreciation but don’t fall back on dismissal; find out what they are trying to achieve and judge for yourself how close they came.

The most vital claim I am making here is not that symphonic concerts or nights at a major opera house are to be totally relinquished but rather that such experiences might be augmented by more informal interactions with live music. Most importantly, do not give up on live performance. Hearing music performed live with a group of fellow listeners cannot be replaced by digital reproduction no matter how refined the technology. Music breathes differently when you are in a room with the performers who are desperately attempting to communicate something to you; it is an irreplaceable experience. As I write this, I am only hours away from another evening at the Metropolitan Opera. And yes, I am dressed appropriately and will sit quietly. But I might not be able to help myself from pulling the ticket stub from my pocket and slowly rubbing it between my fingers. We all have nervous habits (well, I do anyway). It could be worse. When minor annoyances crop up, remember 18th-century Venice and be thankful that I wasn’t sitting in the cheap seats above you then.