David Lister: Carry on booing – and let the drama continue right to the end of the curtain call
The Week in Arts
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Saturday 03 March 2012
Not for the first time, a performance of an opera was met with furious booing this week. This has certainly happened in London before. The venue for booing has tended to be English National Opera, which specialises in radical productions. But on this occasion it was the Royal Opera House, where the setting of Dvorak's magical Rusalka in a brothel did not please the first-night audience.
A brothel was not the place that the mermaid in the story should be seen, the audience felt. The Daily Telegraph critic, who must have had the paper's 1950s style guide to hand, wrote that the costumes consisted of "girls running around in their scanties".
As I say, I have heard booing at the opera before. But, now I come to think of it, I have never heard booing at the theatre. I have never heard booing at the ballet, nor at an orchestral concert. What is it about an opera audience that gives it the need to find that most extreme form of release for its critical verdict?
I suspect that it is because the opera audience is particularly knowledgeable about the works and feels somehow proprietorial, just as the Radio 3 audience takes few prisoners in letting its feelings be known. It is also a more affluent audience than most other art forms, and perhaps has that added confidence that money brings. The fact that the Royal Opera is partly paid for by the taxpayer would increase that sense of ownership. Or it could just be that the seats are so darn expensive that the audience is determined to make its feelings known if it feels that nigh on £200 hasn't delivered a good evening.
And, of course, curtain calls give the opportunity for selective booing. In the case of Rusalka, the cast, orchestra and conductor were applauded, the director and designers booed. At a theatre first night, a play's director and designer don't always take a bow, so the opportunity for selective booing is lost. Going to an opera first night, and knowing when and precisely who to boo, is an art form in itself.
To my mind, it's no bad thing. There are those who find booing a performance uncouth. But why should art be so different from sport in this respect? At a football match the slow handclap followed by booing at the final whistle is a respectable and time-honoured way of making one's feeling known. (I speak with some knowledge as an Arsenal fan in a mediocre season.) I certainly wouldn't want to see a slow handclap in an opera house or theatre, but those putting on a production should be big enough at the curtain call to take the audience's verdict, however it is expressed. And they should want to know what that verdict is.
If there's too much protectiveness of artistic sensibilities, too much forced politeness, then an evening that should be discovering truth and hidden depths ends up with a display of falseness and shallowness. So, carry on booing. Let it spread to other art forms. And let those who disagree with the boos make their feelings known in arguments in the stalls. There could be more drama at the curtain call than in the performance.
So much for the 'free' concert
After several years now of campaigning against booking fees, "handling" charges and the rest, I thought I had seen just about everything regarding these irritating extra charges. But thank you, BBC, for coming up with the ultimate booking fee – a booking fee for a free event. The event is a huge free concert in London in June, where Lana Del Rey, Jessie J and will.i.am will be performing. It is free, as you will hear many times at the moment, on Radio 1. What you probably won't hear is that there's a £2.50 administration fee when you book a ticket. In fact, they actually call it the dreaded "handling" fee, adding, as if it cleared up any confusion. "A handling fee of £2.50 per ticket will be added to cover all associated ticket handling costs."
I shall leave it to greater linguists than I to decide whether that still constitutes a free concert. But don't let me put anyone off complaining to the BBC in the meantime.
When is a solo artist not a solo artist? When she's in a band
The excellent singer Florence of Florence and the Machine won best solo artist at the NME awards on Wednesday, just a week after she appeared at the Brits where she was nominated in the Best Female category. The only person who seems to be surprised at this success is Florence herself. She said after the NME award: "I'm grateful to win solo awards, but it's strange because I've never been sure how the solo act came out of the band idea. It's a project I started, but I've worked with so many amazing musicians and it's such a collaborative thing. The solo award is for them..."
It's a noble and humble gesture by Florence to acknowledge that her work is collaborative, and that she is a little bemused at winning a solo award. Of course, there is a sure-fire way to avoid that embarrassment and confusion – scrap the name Florence and the Machine, and just be called The Machine.
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