First Night: Hecklers lose their first night joust: Gawain / The Hecklers Royal Opera House

THERE never was such a knight. As the curtain fell on Sir Harrison Birtwistle's modernist opera at 10pm, the Hecklers rose. You can't whistle Birtwistle, they reasoned, and so they booed, writes David Lister.

The Covent Garden auditorium briefly resembled a pantomime audience. Twenty or so people, mainly in the cheap seats, booed and shouted remarks like: 'Shame about the score.' Most, led by Lord Gowrie, the Arts Council chairman and former cabinet minister, tried to drown them out. Gowrie stood up in the stalls trying, not entirely successfully, to lead a standing ovation. But the applauders certainly were far noisier than the detractors.

Gawain is a revival, somewhat amended, of Sir Harrison's 1991 piece. It was a critical success, though the low prices at Covent Garden last night suggest that the public is still making up its mind.

With the libretto rewritten and the set redesigned, this was a far sharper version, dramatically and visually, than the 1991 premiere. There were also compelling laser effects and a torso-less Green Knight. The powerful central performances from Francois Le Roux and John Tomlinson received considerable applause. The music was what admirers call intricately layered. It did not, though, have a single whistleable toon.

The Hecklers, who had their first public outing last night, are a new society formed by Frederick Stocken, a composer of 'romantic futurist' (whistleable) music whose latest effort has entered the classical charts. His campaign, launched by an advert in the Spectator magazine, is intended to provoke change in the country's musical establishment, the funding bodies and subsidised houses that encourage modernist composers, and the critics who encourage them encouraging them.

Stocken, who urged the public to buy pounds 2 slip seats at Covent Garden from which to heckle, yesterday called Gawain 'sonic sewage' and cited 'a noble tradition for heckling. We are heckling for harmony, booing for beauty. Heckling was common in the 19th century and before.'

He had, he said, kept his powder dry until the end of the evening as 'if we booed during the piece, people would think it was part of the opera'. Sir Harrison gave a good-natured victory sign to the audience at the end.

A review of Gawain will appear on tomorrow's Classical Music page.