We've reached the end of a hectic and remarkable music season and 2002-2003 promises to be even more exciting and significant. The Florida Philharmonic is auditioning finalists for music director, Florida Grand Opera kicks off a projected eight-year cycle of Mozart's complete operas, the New World Symphony marks its 15th anniversary and Palm Beach Opera turns 40.
With the summer lull upon us it's a good time to talk about one of South Florida's claims to fame in recent years (hint: it's not orange juice, unorthodox voting patterns or even terrorist cells). I'm talking about our well-earned reputation for having the rudest classical concert audiences in North America.
Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. She sang beautifully in an intelligent, wide-ranging program of music from Handel and Strauss to Rachmaninoff and Gershwin. In New York or Chicago, the glamorous singer would have been showered with a rapturous reception, ovations and vociferous cries for multiple encores.
Not at Kravis. The soprano was repeatedly cut off by premature, half-hearted applause not only between selections, but often before she had even finished singing. Following the tepid audience response, Fleming returned for an encore only to see the backs of most audience members slowly trudging to the exits, likely unprecedented in her experience. During the concert many audience members sat back watching and couldn't be bothered to applaud at all, as if the world's most celebrated soprano was a neighborhood mime rented for their grandchildren's birthday party. Fleming, by all accounts, was so infuriated by the audience rudeness that she erupted backstage and vowed never to return to the Kravis Center. And who could blame her?
Writing about discourteous audience behavior in South Florida seems akin to complaining about alligators encroaching on yards in western suburbs and unsafe driving conditions on I-95. Yet even at a time when basic concert etiquette appears to be an endangered species nationwide, South Florida's audiences have reached a nadir of disengagement, cluelessness, early or no applause, electronic interruptions and general boorish behavior.
Just last week, a late decamper from the men's room noisily slammed the heavy doors of First Presbyterian Church in Pompano Beach, spoiling the hushed opening bars of Durufle's Requiem. Later during the same work's famous "Pie Jesu" section, another audience member appeared to be locked in what sounded like a prolonged death struggle with a jumbo bag of Doritos.
It's a fact that audience rudeness has no age, gender or ethnic borders. I've witnessed appalling concert behavior from a rainbow coalition of loutish nincompoops across the spectrum. Yet there is no way to avoid the fact that South Florida's heavy senior demographic presents some unique situations of concert discourtesy.
The positive thing about having a populace heavy on retirees and snowbirds is that they have the time, interest and disposable income to support classical music and the arts. Without the contribution of South Florida' seasoned (and seasonal) citizens, the cultural community would be a much poorer place.
The downside is that, inevitably as people age, some become less alert and less aware of noises, whether it be their own conversation, shopping bags or technological aids. They also tend to ... well, doze off. Many times I've looked around at audience members at an event and wondered if the venue has been seized by mass narcolepsy. Why bother leaving the house and driving to the hall if you can't even stay awake for the performance? Tuesday afternoon concerts at the Kravis Center in particular often seem like the world's most expensive collective naptime.
Except for the occasional snoring, at least falling asleep is quiet if no less discourteous. More often it's the idea that any noise one makes cannot possibly be disturbing to another human being. How else to explain why one would think that by slowly, slowly unwrapping a cellophane candy wrapper, the irritation to one's neighbor is somehow lessened by prolonging the agony?
Often oblivious conduct proves as disturbing as knowing and conscious acts of discourtesy. Earlier this season, Florida Grand Opera's opening performance of Gounod's Faust was interrupted by the piercing blast of a souped-up hearing aid blaring like an ambulance siren. This proved exasperating to all -- except, apparently, the person in whose ear it was lodged. Ushers had to fan out to isolate the malefactor before the performance could continue.
At Palm Beach Opera this past season, I went through a ritual every opening night that convinced me I was either working too hard or starting to come unhinged from too many arguments with my editors. At irregular intervals during each performance, I heard an intermittent metallic offstage noise; just when I was convinced it was my imagination, it would sound again. This continued like a private psychological Kabuki dance every opening night.
Near the end of the season, a company official solved the mystery, pointing out a woman sitting nearby who was breathing into some sort of oxygen-supplying contraption with a floating metallic element that clanged whenever she inhaled. The racket is endured, apparently, because the woman in question is a big donor to the opera company. Only in South Florida would an audience member be permitted to turn Madama Butterfly into an aleatoric work by John Cage.
Audience rudeness is at least somewhat explicable, though no less disturbing to concert patrons, in the instance of necessary medical equipment. And, in fairness, most of the complaints and letters I get about bad audience behavior come from other seniors, outraged by their peers' actions.
In the case of the seemingly obligatory disruptions by cell phones, pagers and electronic devices, it's not seniors who are to blame, but usually The Young and the Clueless who are the culprits. Virtually every single musical event I've attended in the past year had at least one cell phone interruption during the course of the evening. I thought I had seen it all until a concert last season at the University of Miami. I was sitting directly behind a young woman whose cell phone jangled during the concert's quietest moment. To my amazement, instead of being embarrassed or apologetic for interrupting the performance she took the call and engaged in a whispered conversation for several minutes.
Herewith a few modest proposals for making the concert experience a pleasant environment for all music lovers.
1. Turn off all cell phones and electronic devices. YOU ARE NOT THAT IMPORTANT! Better yet, leave your cell phone and pagers in the car if you can't remember to turn them off. Leave all electronic devices at home or in the car unless they're medically essential, and, hopefully, silent.
2. There are no door prizes for being the first to applaud. Refrain from clapping between movements of a concerto, symphony or set of songs until the end. If the conductor's baton is still aloft, wait until his arm is lowered to applaud. I can't count the times people rush to clap loudly the second the curtain starts to descend or as some quiet music fades to a pianissimo, burying the final bars and breaking the mood with loud applause.
3. Even if refreshments and candies are served at concert venues, a certain amount of self-policing is essential. Unwrap candies and cough drops before the performance and save any noisy noshing for intermission. Celery is forbidden.
4. It takes a particular kind of blind indulgence to bring an infant to a classical concert. No one, including musicians' immediate families, should take children younger than 3 to musical events. Stay home; the musicians and other audience members are not your baby-sitters.
5. Arrive on time and don't be the first to run out of the theater at the end of a performance. The musicians have spent hours (usually) practicing and preparing for a performance. It's the height of rudeness to dash out the second the concert ends to save a few seconds exiting a parking garage.
Finally, getting to a performance on time clearly involves some degree of common sense, and one shouldn't take any cues from an incident that happened last November. The opening night performance of Florida Grand Opera's Madama Butterfly was imperiled by an accident in the southbound lanes of I-95, which brought all traffic to a standstill, stranding several Florida Philharmonic musicians. In a typically bizarre local twist, one enterprising motorist, impatient at the delay, called the police on a cell phone to say he had a bomb, hoping that would motivate the authorities to clear the road more expeditiously. That brainstorm effectively shut down all traffic for over an hour, as nervous police searched for explosives. Happily, the curtain was held 20 minutes, and the show eventually went on.
Only in South Florida.
Lawrence A. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4708.
Classical boors, from cell phones to candy wrappers
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