Over at Slate.com, a writer named Kaya Oakes reports resentfully of having been shushed at a recent Yo-Yo Ma recital by the lady seated in front of her, when she leaned over to her husband to make a whispered comment.
I’d like to offer my sympathy — to the shusher. The woman had set herself up as decorum monitor for her section of Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, and it’s obvious from Oakes’ description that she had her hands full. Throughout the performance “people stomp up and down the aisles spilling their cups of beer, spectators gripe about the hard stone seats, kids fuss and shriek. … Cellphones, banned in the program that nobody bothers to look at, beep out text alerts.”
Oakes seems to think that an environment like this is just what classical music needs to become relevant. I can’t agree. It’s the sort of environment that is killing classical music — and live theater, and moviegoing. The rudeness of entertainment audiences has been growing exponentially every year, and now people have an unprecedented arsenal of weaponry to deploy against their fellows, including smartphones with cameras and text capabilities and beeping, glowing wristwatches.
I speak as a sworn shusher of long experience. My tolerance for disruption is low. In my high school days, during a screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” I spun around to an audience member armed with his toilet paper rolls and toast and barked, “Hey buddy, d’you mind?”
My family knows that it’s the rare movie or concert at which I won’t be shooting a glare at a noisy spectator, or having words, and have perfected the slide into their seat to make themselves inconspicuous. But they should recognize my psychic pain: As we creep closer to curtain time, I grow more tense, knowing that the couple discussing their child’s nursery school accomplishments during the coming attractions will continue the discussion well into the opening credits, or that the young adult texting away before the lights go down at Disney Hall will continue to do so right through the announcement asking the audience to shut off their phones and quiet their Apple Watches, and even through the conductor’s first downbeat. And I’m almost always correct.
We all know what’s chiefly responsible for the collapse of audience etiquette: television. As people became accustomed to getting their entertainment at home — and especially when they started to watch feature films on demand at home — they lost the ability to distinguish between the living room couch, from which they could trade quips with their friends and engage in a one-sided dialogue with the characters on screen, and the stadium seat in the cinema or even the plush seat in the concert hall. All shushers like myself have had the experience of asking noisy patrons to kindly shut up, only to be told that it’s their right to treat the hall like their TV room, because they paid for their ticket, ya know?
In second place are theater managements. At the Ahmanson a few years ago, a performance I attended of “Peter and the Starcatcher” was interrupted by an infant’s yowling. During intermission, when I tracked down the theater manager , the first words out of her mouth were: "Is this about the baby?" She told me that the Ahmanson indeed had a policy barring the admission of children under 6 except for plays for children, but she had waived it this time because the patron had paid for four tickets at $89 each, including one for the baby. I haven’t been back to the Ahmanson since.
At the movies, the staff will wrestle you to the ground if you try to bring in an outside Coke or box of candy, but they’ll wave through a patron coming to a Quentin Tarantino bloodfest with a 3-year-old in tow or even an infant in a carrier. I keep a mental map of theaters in my county, color-coded for the expected behavior of the audience. The greenlight zone gets smaller all the time.
This issue isn’t exactly new. I own a 1989 recording of “The Mikado” in which the Grand Executioner’s “little list” of targets to be extinguished includes “the man who wears a wristwatch with an irritating ‘bleep’ that goes off on his wrist. … To think that all that awful junk is made here, in Japan.” (According to theater legend, this song, “As Some Day It May Happen,” is the only number whose lyrics W.S. Gilbert consented to being altered to meet topical conditions.)
Slate’s Oakes rationalizes the breakdown in decorum with an appeal to history. “The implication is that a noisy audience at a classical show is an uneducated, unsophisticated audience, one that can’t possibly appreciate what’s on the stage,” she writes. “But that’s not how classical music was originally meant to be heard. Bach’s music was certainly played for the 1 percenters of his time, but it was also played in taverns and coffeehouses, for talking, sweating, farting, working-class crowds. Bach was in many ways a glorified organ grinder, cranking out music to support his 20 children. … In concert halls, the lights were left on so people could chat and flirt.”
Oakes needs to consult her history books more closely. The habit of concertgoers chatting and flirting and preening for their social fellows went out in the 18th century, departed unlamented by the composers and performers of the 19th, when Beethoven and Brahms helped launch the tradition of writing and performing for subscription audiences that came to pay attention to the music. Wagner, who was Brahms’ contemporary, built his own theater as a shrine to his music, and would hardly have countenanced audience chatting and flirting.
The great influencer of audience behavior closer to our time was Arturo Toscanini, who insisted in his contracts on a ban on encores, a darkened auditorium for concerts, and according to his biographer Harvey Sachs, “a rule prohibiting audiences from moving in and out of the auditorium while performances were in progress.” Toscanini also instituted a system of rigorous rehearsals, because the quality of the music was his paramount concern.
As for Bach as a “glorified organ grinder,” is Oakes kidding? To say his music was played (a) for the 1-percenters or (b) for taverngoers is to misunderstand his career. For most of his life, Bach was an employee of churches and chapels, which commanded by far the bulk of his prodigious output and presented his works in ecclesiastical atmospheres. His six suites for unaccompanied cello, which were performed by Yo-Yo Ma in an uninterrupted 2 ½ hours at the recital Oakes attended, were written not for the coffeehouse, but to “epitomize virtuosity,” biographer Christoph Wolff reminds us. Their dense counterpoint, harmonies and rhythms were designed to be closely examined, not presented as background noise to a debauch.
Oakes implies that Ma would have condoned the audience behavior at his recital by pointing out that just the day before, he had performed at a street party in Oakland “alongside turf dancers, teen musicians and graffiti artists,” and that “on his current tour, he’s mixing concert venues with community shows.” Yes, but here’s betting that he knows the difference between them, and wouldn’t care for the atmosphere of the latter to be transferred to the former.
Oakes asserts that “classical music isn’t dying, but our ways of experiencing it are becoming ossified,” as if insisting on quiet contemplation of a complex composition will kill classical music sooner or later. The truth is that our ways of experiencing classical music are, if anything, vastly expanding. More music, more recordings, more historic performances are available to the music lover than ever before in history, thanks to streaming, iTunes and its ilk, and YouTube. Classical music (like all music) can be listened to while jogging, cooking, showering, driving, walking or riding the bus. It’s hardly a death knell to demand that in the concert hall, it be listened to without talking, texting or candy-unwrapping that lasts from the concertmaster’s tuning of the orchestra into the second recapitulation.
Now and then, a performer or audience member will gain renown by striking back at the rudeness army. The rightwing commentator Kevin Williamson won fame as a “theater vigilante” in 2013 by snatching a phone from a chattering neighbor and tossing it away. I find Williamson’s written work to be borderline illiterate and hopelessly ignorant, but I willingly commend him for this act of courage.
I will watch the great actress Patti LuPone in anything, but her 2009 rant at a picture-taking spectator at a performance of “Gypsy” is an iconic moment of the theater. Sadly, she had to repeat the effort in 2015, when she marched into the audience at a performance of the play “Shows for Days” to snatch a phone from a texting patron.