Tuesday, 13 May 2014


This article first appeared in auditionoracle.com

This weekend we all* watched the Eurovision song contest (*well, everyone on my Facebook timeline). If you want to read a blog post about the Polish milkmaids or the exotic Austrian winner you may want to look elsewhere. Indeed, if you want to rail against the scandal of the voting in which cold political statements are made with a warmly sequined 'dooooze points!' I'm sure there are columns for that too.

I - like Graham Norton - was more concerned with the two performers from Russia. The Tomalchevy sisters caught the collateral whip crack of opprobrium against their home country for it's perceived disdain for both the LGBT and European communities. Irrespective of the quality of their song or performance ('Shine' - video), they got booed.
Booing at a live performance is very extreme. On the contrary, most people get clapped in a theatre before anyone or anything has had the chance to establish any merit at all (Sir Edward Downes, formerly of the Royal Opera, was always clear on applause - that it was mandatory as an act of courtesy on the part of the audience).

Booing cannot be construed as forming part of the courtesy scale. It's a serious affair. For someone to boo implies that the quality of a performance has been more than low. No, a booed performance has simply slipped off the end of the aesthetic scale altogether.

This is desperately hard for a performer to take. After all, a performer may have been happy with the standard of their performance, whatever anyone else thinks. Even where it's imperfect by their own admission, a lot of work will have gone into preparing the role, let alone dispatching it on stage. Much more to the point - especially in the technologically long-winded, multidisciplinary situation of opera - the performer is the focus not only for their own work but also that of a large number of other people. With consensus and compromise (at its most positive!) built into the production process,  the scale of the task that is achieving universal satisfaction becomes apparent.

This is why it happens then: the grey area between aesthetics and technical achievements, seen through the widely prismatic taste of the potential audience. Then there are the political statements (Peter Tatchell popped up at an LSO concert on Sunday) and personal statements... perhaps you've seen this?

Carlos Kleiber waits patiently for the exceptionally vocal 'loggionisti' at La Scala to finish making known their feelings at his conducting of Otello in 1976. This longstanding group of self-styled cognoscenti claim to have appreciation for the music. Yet their motives may go as far as partizanship for favourite performers (or, as recounted by Thomas Allen in his biography, for money). More recently, Roberto Alagna lost patience after a perfectly good 'Celeste Aida'. Also this week the blogger Intermezzo flags up a story in which the director of the Staatsoper, Franz Welser-Möst is obliged to shrug off the booing of a fan of another conductor.

Nowadays audiences in the UK are fairly wise to the recently established position of Regietheater. Directors are seen as the decisive arbiter of a production, so dissatisfaction with an evening at a show is often meted out on the production crew at a premiere curtain call. However, it is also becoming popular to boo a clear-cut villain in an opera at the curtain call - all very well but still difficult for the hard working Nick Shadow, Iago or Claggart (for example) to take with grace at the end of the evening.

As for the Tomalchevy girls, they are blameless in a singing competition carefully constructed by everyone involved to cause the least offence possible. They'd be forgiven for thinking they can't win. But then, as all of us who perform, audition or demand to take any sort of stage know, that's the risk-reward compact of proper live art. As Franz Welser-Möst says in that interview, "Opera is like a sport... [Booing] is part of its lifeblood."

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