Let playgoers hit the boos: Opera fans should lose their monopoly on vocal disapproval, says David Lister

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The Independent Online
IF SHE follows football, Deborah Warner will be queasy about the fate of the Colombian footballer, Andres Escobar, who was shot dead by some of his countrymen after scoring an own goal that put his side out of the World Cup. Football and opera fans share similar conventions in showing approbation and disgust, and Ms Warner must count herself fortunate that she was not dodging grapeshot on the Sussex Downs.

She was, however, roundly booed at Glyndebourne this week for her feminist production of Don Giovanni. It gathers her a footnote in operatic history, not just for having the don rub himself lasciviously against a statue of the Virgin Mary, but for being the first director to be booed in the new pounds 31m opera house.

Booing was rare in the history of the old Glyndebourne opera house. This may have been a tribute to the quality of the performances and the breeding of the clientele. But I suspect it also had something to do with the inordinate length of the supper interval and the excessive amount of champagne consumed within it which left audiences both well disposed towards the world and its feminist directors and barely able to recollect any bum notes or blasphemies that may have occurred in the first half.

Outside Glyndebourne, opera audiences - or, to be more precise, opera first-night audiences - are, for all their reputation as precious, pampered and elitist, very liberal and egalitarian in their booing. Indeed their timing and strategic planning is often superior to the artists on stage.

At Covent Garden a few years ago the audience broke with the convention of never booing until the final whistle and booed the Italian tenor Walter Donati, who had a throat infection, through the performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore. Normally, booing is reserved for the curtain call, but this audience had acute powers of anticipation. Signor Donati, who perhaps had similar powers, did not take his curtain call.

Booing has always been more energetic in Italy, where opera is regarded as an athletic achievement and a singer missing a note is like a footballer fluffing a pass. And disapproval at Milan's La Scala opera house is not always voiced for logical reasons. For 25 years any soprano playing Violetta in La Traviata was booed for the unforgiveable genetic disorder of not being Maria Callas. But as the English National Opera, the Royal Opera and now even Glyndebourne know, the trend is also firmly rooted among aficionados here.

What is surprising is not so much why opera audiences boo, but why other audiences do not. Opera audiences are to be envied. Only they, along with football crowds, are allowed the freedom of being able to let rip during the curtain call. Why should opera be unique in this respect?

I have heard booing on numerous occasions at opera first nights, but almost never at a classical concert and never at all at the theatre or ballet. Even at the cinema, audiences are occasionally inspired to applaud the unhearing celluloid characters and their creators, but never to boo.

David Pountney, when he was head of productions at the English National Opera, actually welcomed the booing. I remember him telling me that audiences booed his Verdi productions because the ENO took the composer seriously as a dramatist and some audiences felt that kind of music belonged to a certain kind of entertainment, and they were being robbed of an evening of costume drama. 'There's an ongoing struggle for the ownership of culture, which is quite healthy,' he concluded.

Quite healthy indeed. But would Adrian Noble, head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, or Richard Eyre, head of the Royal National Theatre, find it just as healthy if sections of the audience shouted 'rubbish' at the end of an ill-judged modern dress Shakespeare or a revival of a Twenties American comedy that failed to amuse? I suspect not.

Our conventions have become muddled. Opera audiences are allowed, even tacitly encouraged, to boo as the ensuing publicity is seldom harmful. But that booing is generally allowed only for producers, designers and composers. Booing singers is bad form.

Directors and designers of stage plays should also know what audiences think of their efforts, and not just on first nights. Deborah Warner is highly unusual, and to be commended, in attending every performance of a work she directs. A representative of the production team should take a bow on stage after the cast at all performances so that audience reaction can be truly gauged. In ballet, keep the choreographer as well as the dancers on their toes and shove him or her up there for the curtain call wherever possible.

If audiences are expected to show their appreciation at the end of a theatrical performance then they should also be able to show their lack of appreciation. Opera audiences have monopolised interactive evenings out for too long.

Thomas Sutcliffe is on holiday.