Should audiences lay off the boos?
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To boo or not to boo?
At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion three weeks ago, there were loud cheers for tenor Plácido Domingo and conductor James Conlon during the curtain calls for the premiere of Los Angeles Opera’s new production of Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” But amid continued thunderous applause, a couple of jeers also greeted the fanciful director, Achim Freyer, when he came on stage to take a bow. Now, the booers have moved on to the blogosphere, bragging that their booing is a badge of honor.
Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal’s theater critic, argued in a recent column that booing is preferable to audience indifference or the automatic Broadway standing ovation. The excellent daily New York radio show “Soundcheck” also devoted a recent program to the many pros and few cons of booing.
Booing provocative opera directors has been common practice in Europe for some time and is obviously not unheard of in the U.S. New Yorkers booed director Mary Zimmerman (fairly mildly I thought) last month at the Metropolitan Opera for her updated production of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.” For the most part, though, American theatergoers have tended to be more polite (or insecure) and more easily impressed than European audiences.
But that could be changing. Etiquette is not, these days, a growth industry. The Internet is inundated with bile in the name of free expression. Television reality shows encourage a thumbs-up, thumbs-down mentality. The allure of instantaneous reaction makes Twitter the talk of the town. Meanwhile, the economic meltdown is melting down manners: More than ever, people who pay good money to see a show feel they have every right to express righteous anger.
Art isn’t easy, but booing is. A mind-closing activity, it tends to be the expression of rigidity in the face of invention. Artists are almost never booed for incompetence (no one can deny the craft of Freyer’s stagecraft). They are booed for intent and out of partisanship. I don’t necessarily advocate acclaim for nothing more than mindless effort, but in a lifetime of attending the performing arts, I have encountered an insignificant number of truly insincere artists.
Not everything works, but at least in the noncommercial realm of the concert stage and the opera house, I credit nearly everyone with trying to say something. And when they actually manage to, the meaning may not immediately sink in.
A dozen years ago, I remember the opening-night production of “The Magic Flute” at the Salzburg Festival directed by Freyer. He transformed Mozart’s hallowed opera into a transcendental circus, and dressed the characters as clowns. A stern audience of Mozart worshipers seethed in anger. The atmosphere in the hall was so toxic that I feared the crowd would turn into a formally dressed lynch mob when Freyer took his bow.
Yet within two years, this production had become so popular that the festival needed to find a special space for it so it could be brought back annually. It became an Austrian tourist attraction. The gift shop was full of Freyer “Flute” souvenirs. After a little while, Mozart lovers forgot their preconceptions and began to understand that the production was a loving new look at the “Flute,” not a desecration. The best art serves to reveal something you might not have noticed before.
Last Sunday, members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic surrounded Esa-Pekka Salonen and, one after another, hugged him. Musicians and their outgoing music director had tears in their eyes. The ovation from the audience in Walt Disney Concert Hall lasted exactly 16 minutes (I timed it) and would have gone on a lot longer had Salonen not, with a hop, skip and jump, finally pulled his colleagues off stage.
The concert itself was a Peter Sellars staging of Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio “Oedipus Rex” and “Symphony of Psalms.” Sellars, who has had more than his share of boos over the years, did something far more radical to Stravinsky than Freyer has been doing to Wagner across the street. Sellars actually changed the text of “Oedipus,” removing Cocteau’s narrations and adding his own personal selection from Sophocles. He even added a narrative to the “Symphony of Psalms,” making it a ritual burial for Oedipus, which has raised not a few critical eyebrows.
What would Stravinsky have thought? By a strange coincidence, I happened to sing in the chorus of performances of these two works with the old man in the audience. The occasion was the opening of Zellerbach Hall in 1968 at UC Berkeley. Stravinsky had been invited to conduct. I was a first-year music student and, as a performance requirement, had joined the University Chorus.
The 85-year-old composer was ultimately too weak to conduct. He attended, but the musician closest to him, Robert Craft, filled in on the podium. University officials gave us little access to rehearse in the new hall, nor did we get much time with Craft. Too late we learned that Zellerbach’s acoustics were poor. We couldn’t hear ourselves to find our cues, and Craft, conducting with his head buried in the score, was not much help. I can only imagine what it sounded like to Stravinsky, whom we could see in the audience mechanically smiling.
The music was presented without context or much of anything. Notes were notes and no more. I don’t remember our ever paying attention to what the Latin text meant, although we memorized it. The applause from a gala audience was nothing special but Stravinsky got a dutiful standing ovation.
If that occasion was an example of period practice (Stravinsky did choose the conditions even if the results may not have been as he would have liked), then Sellars’ production should have been, in comparison, sheer travesty. But tell that to the Disney audience. Tell that to Salonen, who, after conducting unforgettably brilliant performances in a hall where every sound is a visceral experience, walked off stage with his arm around Sellars. In fact, Sellars produced an atmosphere of such radiant Stravinskyan revelation that he wound up giving the orchestra and audience permission to express their own love.
Salonen, don’t forget, wasn’t welcomed with such open arms to the Los Angeles Philharmonic 17 years ago. His programming of modern music infuriated longtime L.A. Philharmonic subscribers who wanted comforting classics cushioned in a warm blanket of soothing sound.
When I arrived at The Times, 13 years ago, I got an earful from orchestra players who were fed up with their frigid Finnish maestro taking all the bloom out of Beethoven and Bruckner, to say nothing of his icy Tchaikovsky. Plus it seemed as though the whole city was opposed to the building of an unconventional concert hall considered downright perverse.
Those attitudes didn’t change overnight. Mature relationships need time, and they need goodwill. In the end, Los Angeles artists, administrators and audiences learned to care about one another, and Salonen won our trust and our love.
Boos stop discussion. But a symphony orchestra hug like last Sunday’s amazing display in Disney can be heard around the world.
-- Mark Swed
Illustration by Jason Greenberg. Photo of Esa-Pekka Salonen by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times.