Jemima Lewis: Only a cruel bully would boo at the opera

It's hard to feel much sympathy for someone who takes himself as seriously as Alagna. But I do
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To those who regard opera as the silliest of art forms, the recent goings-on at La Scala would seem to prove the point. The tenor Roberto Alagna - a man prone to showbiz histrionics, who once allegedly demanded a hair and make-up artist for a Radio 3 interview - flounced off stage on Sunday, only 10 minutes into the second night of a spectacular new production of Aida. He was in a rage because his first aria had been booed by some of the loggiostini - the famously belligerent "opera anoraks" who subscribe to the cheap seats on high.

In a scene crying out for a Hollywood film deal, Alagna's understudy, Antonello Polombi, was thrust on stage still in his jeans and without having done any vocal warm-up exercises. There were cries of "Shame!" and "This is La Scala!" but the plucky unknown kept his nerve. "I thought, 'OK, now you sing,'" he said afterwards - and sing he did, for the rest of the show, and with such gusto that he received the longest and loudest applause of the night.

But Alagna is not a man to be overshadowed by his understudy. Since Sunday he has been more vocal - and more deliciously queenly - than ever. First, he insisted he had sung "like a god", and announced he would never again perform at La Scala (an arrangement with which the management heartily concurred).

Now he is threatening to sue the opera house on health and safety grounds, because it failed to protect him from the audience. What started with boos and whistles, he argues, could have turned even nastier. "What if they had thrown stones at me or some crazy person had attacked me? After all, John Lennon ended up being killed."

It's hard to feel much sympathy for someone who takes himself so seriously, but I do. British opera-goers tend to regard their Italian counterparts with tremulous admiration: see how they shout and boo and stamp their feet, those hot-blooded music-lovers! Why can't we Brits engage so passionately with the arts?

Myself, I dread the day we do. I have loved the opera since I was a little girl, in part because of the gentleness of the audiences. In a world that even then seemed to be losing its manners, the opera house - as much as the music itself - felt like a sanctuary of old-fashioned decorum.

Mine was, admittedly, a perspective warped by desperation. I was a timid, dreamy child, with buck teeth, myopia and the ghostly complexion that comes from spending all day inside playing with your dollies. Childhood was for me - as for many a kindred weed - a daily test of endurance. I became almost resigned to being dragged around the playground by my tie, or trussed up and left dangling from a coat peg; but the experience of being bullied radically rearranged my Weltanschauung.

It became clear to me that, contrary to what I had surmised from Enid Blyton, people could not be trusted to abide by the rules of fair play; that in fact human beings - especially children - were brimming with latent savagery; and that they were never more dangerous and hateful than when gathered en masse.

What I loved about the opera was that - both on stage and off - it seemed to offer an exception to these gloomy truisms. My parents were not rich, so we tended to go to touring productions at provincial theatres. The audiences here were mercifully free of the characters that blight grander opera houses: the plutocrats, corporate freeloaders or - worst of all - self-styled opera buffs who loudly criticise the performances during the interval, and make a great show of not reading the surtitles to demonstrate that they know the libretto by heart. (A popular affectation is to remain stony-faced when a joke appears in the surtitles, only to rock with laughter several minutes later when the same line is sung in Italian.)

No, the audiences I fell in love with were grey-haired, kindly amateur enthusiasts, who would never dream of criticising anyone brave enough to stand on stage and sing. The men were prone to overdoing the half-time drinks, but this never manifested itself in anything more brutish than a sudden snore, or a burst of humming along. The women - resplendent in the dowdy taffetas and velvets of the British middle classes - were, like me, dumbstruck by the romance and splendour of the occasion.

Should things go badly wrong, these people had their own equivalent of a boo: clapping slightly more softly when the offender took his bow. But they were never, like the audiences at La Scala, cruel and self-important enough to bully the singers. Good manners spring from empathy: if you can imagine yourself standing on stage before a booing mob, you will never want to inflict that on another.

Laura Foscanelli, one of the loggiostini who booed Alagna, told the newspapers that he had to be taken down a peg or two. "He needs a bit of humility," she said. I dare say that's true, but so do his tormentors. The audiences at La Scala consider themselves the cultural crème de la crème; but true gentility comes from within.