Thursday, December 29, 2005

On applause

A year ago I posted a taxonomy of opera experience, primarily as a tool for understanding how others might strongly approve -- or disapprove -- of a performance one does not. For sometimes it's disagreement about a specific thing, but as often we talk past each other, each looking to parts of the evening the other discounts.

A post months later picked up that thread a little, beginning to examine live performance v. transmission/recording in light of this taxonomy. But continuing seemed a bit redundant, as simply listing the aspects of operatic experience previously noted pretty much makes the distinctions, trivial and not, apparent:
(1) Opera is a sensual art.
(2) Opera is a dramatic art.
(3) Opera illuminates the world, and one's experience in it.
(4) Opera illuminates its own world: the history, present, and future of opera.
(5) Operagoing is a social activity, beyond and around the sitting-in-the-dark-as-an-audience part.
Really I have no patience for systems, even my own.

But those mikes at a non-broadcast performance of American Tragedy got me thinking about this again. Was that evening particularly focused because (and again, I was just speculating as to why the mikes were there) the event was to be recorded? Such things happen. Performers improve, or tighten up, or something with such a prospect. And it's odd: the dynamic among performers and audience -- the dramatic element of theater, in this case opera -- is changed by listeners who, not being in fact present (or in some cases even yet existing), cannot physically affect the show in any way, whether by breathing, squirming, coughing, rustling, talking, clapping, cheering, booing, or sitting blessedly still. Their presence in performers' minds seems sufficient.

Yet for the home listener, much of the drama is washed out -- secondhand. Sound and video may preserve some of the energy exchanged and transformed there among those present, but even then they offer no personal way in. The presence of the distant audience was a collective one, its individual parts hardly differentiated in that sea of (at best) invisible imagined reaction. Did that in-house audience imagine this remote listener too? Sit rapt, cheer, or boo on his behalf? He himself is impossibly distant, and can't.

*     *     *

Of these missing interjections, applause is the key. It's the consummation of performance-as-drama, the Dionysian end of the rite. (And those who would "encourage" it in the guise of opposing classical "stuffiness" bark up entirely the wrong tree.) Each listener there (heretofore officially passive) has a share of the revels, perhaps some share of the performers themselves... But the solitary listener at home does not. His circle doesn't close so neatly; any energy and tension and approval and resentment aroused in the event isn't so easily dissipated. (Fortunately, then, these usually aren't as great.)

What, then? Why -- words. Talk, online chat, IM exchanges, review missives to electronic fora, "best of" lists, fan sites, and, yes, sometimes blog posts and blog comments. Reading and writing both.

Of course, I say this on a blog mostly inspired by local live performance...


  1. Fora indeed. To say nothing of the fauna.

  2. I'm not sure if this is what you're getting at in your "applause" post but, all things being equal (which they rarely are, of course), I much prefer listening to an opera recorded before a live audience -- where applause are part of the aural experience -- versus a sterile, studio version. Even those horrid Opera d'Oro CDs have some redeeming value because of that, not the least of which includes the fact that the entire label is practicaly an homage to Leyla Gencer. Two "best of" examples that come immediately to mind include CDs in my collection of Donizetti's "Don Sebastiano" and Massenet's "Le Cid," both of which are dramatically enhanced by the reactions of the audience to what is obviously (in both cases) great on-stage excitement.

  3. This is a little off-topic, but it might be fun to think about the structure of operas regarding applause. There's an article I can think of which discusses (in part) how opera seria arias are structured to both allow and encourage audience response, creating a more open dialogue with the singers. The Wagnerian flow of opera really shuts that response down--and I don't doubt he meant it to, and it changes the relationship of listeners to opera so dramatically. Hmmmm. More to say on that...

  4. Call it "tantric opera"...

  5. I agree with straussmonster's post above... the audience interaction from applause is key to what distinguishes live theatre from recordings. Not that the Wagnerian structure doesn't have it's merits, but as a performer, I like the feedback!


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.