LMB's treatise on booing

Last weekend I saw an incredible opening night performance of Pique Dame (Queen of Spades) in Houston. The singing was glorious, and the production was innovative and stylized, with several moments that took my breath away. It's not a production that will please everyone—it pushes boundaries and challenges the performers and the audience, but it certainly pleased me. It was the kind of performance that made me want to go back several times, because I was sure I would get more out of it with each repeat viewing. And even though I wouldn't have necessarily made the same choices this director made, it was such a joy to see someone making strong, bold choices and following them through in unexpected ways.

When the curtain fell on the end of the opera, the applause was tumultuous, as it inevitably is on an opening night. The singers got their customary "Bravo" and "Brava" shout-outs, and by the time the tenor bowed, most of the audience were on their feet. Then the director and designer (both of whom, I should mention, were remounting someone else's original work) came out on stage, and a smattering of boos could be heard through the applause. Not unanimous by any means, but nonetheless audible. I immediately countered with my own "Bravo," but I've been feeling unsettled about those boos ever since. In the 5 years I've been sitting in this particular opera house, I have never heard a single boo, and this is hardly the only nontraditional production I've seen.

Booing in the opera house has a long (I'm talking centuries-long) history; at La Scala it's practically a sport (very much in the present tense—for the most sensational recent(ish) booing incident, see here). Here in the States, however, it's much less common, but it seems to be making a resurgence. Last year, standing backstage for my Big House debut, a stagehand told me that in his 25 years of working there he had never heard such strong booing. True as that may be, less than a year later it had already been topped. Booing seems to be primarily reserved for directors and designers; you don't hear many stories of singers or conductors being booed in the US. Maybe booing someone you've just watched onstage for 3 hours, even if they biffed their high C or schmacted their way through it, seems too personal. Much easier to focus on the production team, whom you've never seen before and can blame for any aspect of the show you didn't like.

I, for one (and I'm fully cognizant of my bias here), am against booing in just about any situation I can think of. At the most fundamental level, I find it disrespectful. Just as the singers have offered up part of themselves to the audience, so has the director, and regardless of whether it's to your liking or not, it is an act of bravery to put your work on the stage and then bow to claim it as your own. Some productions make you think or make you uncomfortable or upset you, and some productions are truly terrible, I'll be the first to admit. But every time you go to a cultural event, be it a movie, a play, an opera, or even an art exhibition, you are taking a risk. Maybe you will love it, maybe you will hate it, maybe you will forget it the second it's over—there is absolutely no guarantee that you will enjoy yourself. And isn't that one of the joys of seeing something new? Isn't that what makes the times you love what you see really mean something?

Of course people should be allowed to express their feelings, positive or negative, and certainly booing is the easiest, most immediate way to do that. Terry Teachout, in a fascinating article he wrote after the Sonnambula opening (I particularly like what he says about standing ovations), proposes that opera houses instate a "Silent Boo" system, in which people drop their programs after the show into a "Cheers" bin or a "Jeers" bin in order to communicate what they thought of the performance. I say we can go even simpler than that. For me, nothing speaks louder than a dip in the applause, the palpable lack of cheers and "Bravos." Because let's face it, the most egregious directors are crossing their fingers they'll get booed, so they can talk about how controversial and important they are. Rather than being inspired to put something different on the stage, the booing is only going to push them to create even stranger and less traditional experiments. Simply not clapping is so much more powerful. Or, if you really hate what you're seeing, just leave at intermission. Trust me, companies take notice when that happens.

And if that fails, there's always that old standby: the sternly worded complaint letter.


  1. The only time I've heard booing at the Wortham was when we left stage right at the end of the opening witches scene in Macbeth. An Alden production.... nuf said

  2. I was in a production recently where a singer was booed (despite the announcement that he was ill), both at his individual bow and at the cast bow. I knew *I* wasn't being booed, but it was a terrible feeling being on that stage. I felt so hurt and angry for my colleague.

  3. I don't know. I don't think one should boo a director just because one disagrees with or dislikes what he did. But I have seen some productions where the director seemed to be saying, I despise this opera and I despise you in the audience who love it. The only worth in this production is the scornful commentary I have heaped on the work. I don't see why that kind of attitude should be immune from booing (except that, as you say, that kind of director glories in being booed).

  4. When patrons have made substantial financial commitments, in the hopes of developing a world class organization, and are delivered comical garbage - again and again - what would you have them do? Boo or walk away with their donations? So far, diplomacy has failed, and the natives are getting restless.

  5. The booing I have heard lately on Met broadcasts has been from a very few people, delivered very loudly. I don't know that it means much, when the majority of the audience seems to like what it has seen.

    I have to wonder about why the booers are even there. I have to think they have their own agenda, separate from the production team's concept.

    I have seen most of the productions that were booed, and I didn't really see anything wrong with them. I really liked Sonnambula. I liked Tosca for the most part, and since some of the blatant sexuality has been toned down for this spring revival, I though it served the opera well enough. I loved the Hamlet - I don't remember if that was booed. Something else was that I liked, and I can't remember what it was.

    And the Tosca this spring has been sold our, despite the production, whether you liked it or not, because of the excellent cast.

    Maybe the Hoffmann was booed? I don't remember. I liked the Hoffmann more than I liked the former Met production.

    I think people have a right to boo, even though I wouldn't. But let's put it in perspective. It is only a handful of people. It shouldn't have much recognition if the majority is applauding.

    And don't tell me that those of us who are applauding just don't know anything. That makes me much more upset than the booing!

    Kathy Boyce


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