Opera Audiences of the Past: A Rowdier Bunch

Here is an an amusing excerpt on Paris Opera attendees before the French Revolution, taken from James Johnson’s “Listening in Paris” (as quoted in Alex Ross’s latest piece in the New Yorker):

While most were in their places by the end of the first act, the continuous movement and low din of conversation never really stopped. Lackeys and young bachelors milled about in the crowded and often boisterous parterre, the floor-level pit to which only men were admitted. Princes of the blood and dukes visited among themselves in the highly visible first-row boxes. Worldly abbés chatted happily with ladies in jewels on the second level, occasionally earning indecent shouts from the parterre when their conversation turned too cordial. And lovers sought the dim heights of the third balcony—the paradise—away from the probing lorgnettes.

A century later, were the Italians any more well-behaved? Perhaps the balcony canoodling had subsided, but audiences were ever vocal with their opinions:

The audience of the time had little concern for a performance’s dramatic continuity, and it was not uncommon to hear importunate cries of “bis” (again!) from the auditorium after a well-received aria or duet, whereupon the action of the drama would stop and the orchestra and singer would simply repeat the entire number to the delight of those in attendance. There were even times when entire acts were repeated upon demand! However, when the audience was not so well disposed toward a piece or the opera as a whole, these cries of “bis” could turn sarcastic. Should the work fail to please, the auditorium would resound with jeers, whistles, catcalls and various admonishments from enraged individuals. A successful opera was an event of great importance in Italian society; an unsuccessful opera, at times, could be of even greater moment.

This quote comes from Chadwick Jenkins’ consideration of Puccini’s audience on a helpful website run by Columbia University and New York City Opera. If you read more of Jenkins’ assessment, you might be surprised to learn that the Madama Butterfly premiere of February 17, 1904 at La Scala was one of those unfortunate “greater moments.” It was a true fiasco, according to a March 1904 edition of Musice e Musicisti:

Growls, shouts, groans, laughter, giggling, the usual single cries of “bis,” designed to excite the public still more; that sums up the reception which the public of La Scala accorded the new work by Maestro Giacomo Puccini . . . The spectacle given in the auditorium seemed as well organized as that on the stage since it began precisely with the beginning of the opera.

That one of the most popular operas in the repertoire was received with such hostility is amusing to us now, though for Puccini the reception was demoralizing. Beyond the basic catcalls, the audience accusingly shouted “Boheme! Boheme!” when a Butterfly melody resembled one from the composer’s earlier work. Jenkins also reports that when soprano Rosina Storchio’s Cio-Cio San costume inadvertently billowed, giving the appearance of a pregnant belly, audience members shouted “Butterfly is pregnant!” and more crudely, “Ah, the little Toscanini!” in reference to Storchio’s infamous affair with the conductor Arturo Toscanini. One can certainly empathize with Puccini’s devastation, and the whole incident shows how easily the work could have slipped into oblivion; luckily it did not!

Though most patrons now reserve their harshest judgments for intermission chatter, opera audiences remain more vocal than others, especially with their enthusiasm. That said, unless Madisonians prove me wrong, I would have to guess that Italians still take the cake for being the most outspoken: at a 2005 performance of Verdi’s Nabucco in Verona, I witnessed the audience demand and receive a mid-performance encore of the Act III “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.”

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