Leading Article: Booing is fine as long as it's spontaneous

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THERE is something contradictory in paying good money to attend a play or opera in order to express disapproval of it. The revival of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain at the Royal Opera House in London last night was the target of an organised group bent on showing just how spurious its members believe modernist works of this ilk to be. All that seemed likely to be achieved was to spoil the occasion for those genuinely interested in, or attracted by, Sir Harrison's controversial opera.

There is much to be said for spontaneous expressions of hostility, be they to the first performance of a new work, to a new and particularly perverse production of a cherished masterpiece, or even to a lamentable performance by a famous and highly paid star.

A notorious example of the first category was the premiere in Paris in 1913 of Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring, with choreography by the great dancer Nijinsky. It caused a riot. Yet a few decades later Stravinsky was being booed as old hat by the rising young composer Pierre Boulez. The right moment to have shown hostility to Gawain was when it opened in 1991.

There was a good example of reaction to a favourite work traduced when half the stalls audience stood up and booed at a zany Covent Garden production of Beethoven's Fidelio in 1986. In recent times there has been little booing of opera stars in Britain - though both Pavarotti and Katia Ricciarelli had a hard time in Verdi's Aida at the Royal Opera House in 1984. Claques paid or persuaded to boo or clap specific artists are a speciality of continental opera houses. They still flourish in Italy.

Being part of an audience is an essential element in the pleasure of live entertainment. By European standards, the British are, however, a relatively passive lot, whatever they are watching (sport apart, of course). Disapproval is shown by staying away, disappointment by merely tepid applause. The tendency is to err on the side of charity: it is as if, having taken the big decision to attend, paid a good deal for their ticket and struggled to theatre or concert hall, most people are determined to make the most of whatever is laid before them.

That is no way to keep performers on their toes. But planned displays of disapproval go too far the other way, and play no part in most people's idea of a good night out.