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October 23, 2008

Is it just me, or are audiences getting worse?

Pardon my venting, but some recent experiences with audiences have had me wondering if we're entering an even darker age of unenlightenment. Consider some recent evidence:

EXHIBIT A: Opening night of Baltimore Opera's Aida production, Oct. 11. Midway through the first act, a man near me answers a cell phone call (I guess he'd like to be credited for at least having had it on vibrate, since there was no ring tone audible), then proceeds to get up and climb over me to exit the Lyric, speaking to his caller as he goes. He blithely reappears later on -- during the music, of course -- to reclaim his seat. It was a Saturday night, so it wasn't likely that his broker was on the phone with more news of the crash. And if was so damn important to get that call, why couldn't the opera-goer have just stayed home? I guess the sense of entitlement really doesn't have any bounds.

EXHIBIT B-1: The National Symphony's performance of Mahler's Third at the Kennedy Center, Oct. 18. During the delicate, nostalgic second movement, someone in the balcony began coughing. There was lots of other coughing, as at any concert these days, but this was different. The sound was closer to that of a hard-to-start car on a sub-freeze morning. I've never heard anything like it emited from a human being. And it went on and on and on. No sooner did it stop, and the beauty of the music could flow freely, than it returned. In the end, it did damage to each remaining movement of the symphony. Even if it would have been difficult for the cougher to get out into the lobby, surely some attempt at muffling that blood-curdling sound could have been made.

EXHIBIT B-2: Same place, same NSO Mahler concert. The final bars of this symphony are among the most uplifting that Mahler ever wrote, as the solemn music reaches an emotional peak of brilliant harmonic and emotional resolution, even rapture. Just as that resolution was approaching, and conductor Ivan Fischer was masterfully guiding the orchestra through a terrific crescendo, a guy got up right down front, climbed over the people in his row and calmly walked out, seemingly oblivious to the drama onstage and, I guess, uninterested in how the music was going to end. Then, even more amazing to me, another departure. This one was during the closing measures, when that thrilling, ultimate chord is not only reached, but given extra emphasis by a series of massive timpani strokes. In between those strokes, a woman, also right down in front, headed for the exit. Now mind you, there were maybe 30 seconds left in the performance, 30 glorious seconds. The NSO was pouring out a golden tone, the pounding timpani were providing a marvelous, visceral finality -- and this person, who had been sitting there for the rest of the work's nearly 100 minutes, just got up and left. The visual distraction was bad enough. The fact that anyone could feel satisfied without experiencing the very last notes of one of the greatest works in the symphonic repertoire is simply incomprehensible to me.

I rest my case.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:26 AM | | Comments (1)


Oh I'm so glad someone else thinks this behavior is terrible. At Washington National Opera's production of "Lucrezia Borgia" last night, with Renee Fleming. The curtain hadn't even finished coming down on the final act when a couple from the exact middle of our row began climbing their way out. Presumably beating traffic out of the garage is justification for this discourteous, boorish behavior. It's not the movies, it's customary to spend a few minute showing appreciation to the people on stage that have just spent several hours producing art and entertaining you. I thought about tripping them, but well, that would have been rude.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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