To Boo Or Not To Boo

Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House (picture: Tristram Kenton)
Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera House (picture: Tristram Kenton)

To boo or not to boo, that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer a travesty of an opera production or to take arms against the sea of gratuitous violent rape and by opposing get a lot of publicity in the media.

The Royal Opera House’s recent decision to introduce a rape scene into a production of Guillaume Tell raised hackles and ultimately heckles amongst audiences. As someone who has been on both sides of the proscenium arch when this kind of issue has arisen, I was interested in the audience’s behaviour and the Opera House’s response to the extensive booing.

As a member of the audience, I have occasionally been annoyed, upset and even outraged at the treatment of a well loved work. My own reaction is to write a strongly worded tweet. I have walked out of shows but only on two occasions I can remember. Once was at a very unfunny comedy during the Edinburgh Fringe and the other was during a Punch & Judy show where I found Mr Punch’s violence towards a baby too graphic and rather too celebratory for my taste.

I think members of an audience owe their fellow ticket buyers the courtesy of not disturbing them, so I was surprised to read Kasper Holten, the ROH’s director of opera, saying that although he disapproved of booing during a performance, ‘we’re talking about adults. It’s not our job to tell people how to behave.’

On the contrary, I think a theatre has a responsibility to its other patrons who may be enjoying the performance to put a stop to disruptive behaviour including vocal complaints. When I was in charge, this would even apply to excessive heckling of comedians and too much interruption of pantomime, the kinds of performance that traditionally invite some audience participation. It would also apply to people taking photos or carrying out loud conversations. I was always happy to give a refund if someone left or was asked to leave. My view is that my freedom stops at the point it affects another person’s. Booing should be saved for the curtain call.

It was no surprise to me that the booing happened at the opera. I suspect from past examples that opera audiences are the most inclined to boo. My impression is that opera attracts a higher number of the kind of people who think only their opinion or feelings are important and other people’s are not. I don’t know if it’s the sense of entitlement that accompanies wealth or the sheer passion of opera.

I’d rather they thought it over and took a less disruptive approach but I suspect ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

By Paul Lewis

After a short stint as a journalist, I have spent most of my working life in marketing and retailing. I love theatre and have been lucky enough to work in theatre marketing for many years. I provide small businesses and arts organisations with holistic marketing at an economic price through my company Seven Experience Ltd

1 comment

  1. This is a typical liberal attitude. Freedom is fine until it is something you disagree with. When I buy my ticket, I pay for the right to boo if I don’t like the performance just as much as the right to applaud if I like it. The joy of live theatre is that performers and audience interact.

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