I can come across as a right anti-social little bugger. One of the reasons is that I have low threshold tolerance to ambient noise. I’ve always been that way and recently it’s got significantly worse. The trigger for this thought train came from a Twitter thread on films. It becomes a bit of a joke when similar discussions occur at work because I can tell them that the last time I went to the cinema was to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind – which would have been in 1976.
If I’m to go see something I want to concentrate on the screen or the stage, not on the open-mouthed mastication of the surrounding masses who never learned table manners. Nor on their inane conversations that even when they think are a whisper, still intrude like a shout and become the focus of what I hear rather than what I paid to hear. I can hear that whisper or that sweet wrapper from one end of the auditorium to the other. Those noises are to me like finger nails down a black board and I have to get away.
Noise in the form I want to hear it is fine, it’s what I came to concentrate on. I’m currently in the wrong location to indulge much at the moment, but I am a big fan of opera. I can happily sit in a theatre and focus through a whole Ring Cycle so long as there’s silence around me – which to be fair, when it comes to long evenings listening to opera, the Wagner audience are the best behaved of the lot.
My noise aversion can make me look like a cultural snob when I can no longer stand the distractions of the seated masses and have to leave mid-performance.
It’s given me a bit of humour value in rating opera companies and venues by the type of audience they attract and how likely I am to see a performance through.
At the top is Glyndebourne. The audience behaviour here is generally exemplary. The onset of a coughing fit will see the sufferer immediately leave the auditorium – and if they don’t do it themselves the ushers (otherwise known as vampires due to their dress) will lead them out. It is generally possible for people to control their ‘involuntary’ coughing and the Glyndebourne audience is the best at it.
Not quite at the top is the Royal Opera. I’ve had to walk out of a few productions due to behaviour around me. The worst was La Fille du Regiment with a stellar cast of Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay. Dessay played a tomboy character with trousers and braces a la Tommy Cannon from Cannon and Ball. The woman next to me thought twanging braces was hilarious and was rolling in hysterics at every move and prat fall. There was no way to hang around for the 2nd act with Dawn French as the Duchess, I’d have killed the woman. The 9 high C’s in “ah mes amis” is one of the pinnacles of a tenor’s repertoire, not many get there and that bloody woman deprived me of enjoying it.
Coughing is more prominent at Covent Garden, though I don’t think that by itself that has driven me out of a performance. Out of tune singers have, though.
Perhaps the last in the top category is Welsh National Opera, though only when performing in Cardiff. Their new(-ish) venue is pretty good and hosted what maybe the best performance I have ever seen. The audience is fairly well behaved and I only recall walking out of Il Trovatore because the production was truly horrendous.
English National Opera are a law unto themselves. The audience can be rowdy.
The real fun of gambling with audience behaviour is in the provinces. When I lived in The Cotswolds I used to attend Oxford quite frequently. Both Glyndebourne and WNO used to tour there, as did several eastern European companies. It’s a fascinating place for people watching. Oxford in particular seems to bring out the matriarchs. Dragging the reluctant family out for forced cultural education.
There’s lots of fascinating wo/mansplaining going on that explains the opera to the bored entourage without any reference to the plot. That’s fine when done outside the auditorium, but take it inside and the incessant talking ruins my evening very quickly and I’m on the road home.
Where I may hold my hand up as a cultural snob is in regard to production quality. When you’re used to the best at Glyndebourne or Covent Garden, the People’s Opera of Chisinau can appear as rank amateurs. I probably had a 50:50 chance of staying to the end with those companies. One gloriously crap moment comes to mind. Two old biddies right behind me chatting all the way through Aida and we came to the triumphal march. A scene that Verdi wrote with a vast expanse so that the original production incorporated elephants and lions filling up the Egyptian sands. This production proceeded to perform their version The Sand Dance by Wilson, Keppel and Betty with four people.
It broke my will to live.
Am I a snob ? Perhaps I am. But don’t underestimate the contribution of me being driven insane by noise to that image.