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November 17, 2009

The blissful sounds of silence

If you attend a lot of live performances -- of any kind -- you know well how the people around you can mar the experience. I think I must be some kind of magnet for misbehaving cretins, since they're always sitting near me -- the talkers, the page-turners, the candy-cravers, the ladies with 500 clanging bracelets crammed onto their arms so that they emit a chorus of "Jingle Bells" with every slight move.

Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Opera House, while a really terrific concert version of "Gotterdammerung" was being performed by Washington National Opera, a couple of over-aged lovebirds in the row ahead kept up a nonstop series of distractions: kiss-kiss, head on shoulder for a few seconds, kiss-kiss, whisper, head back on shoulder, kiss kiss, whisper. I was amazed that they lasted through the five-hour event and, sure enough, they were the first on their feet to applaud when it was over -- had they actually heard anything of the performance?

And then there was the guy in one of the balconies who screamed out something near the end of the first act. I swear I thought I heard "Wotan!", but that was probably my imagination. My guess is that the man had fallen asleep and was dreaming; or maybe he had been dragged to the opera by a domineering spouse and was expressing his annoyance. Either way, not the sort of thing you want to hear during Wagner.

Oh yes, there was also the unfortunate

malfunctioning hearing aid that squealed on and on through the start of the first act -- in my row, of course. At least that was not deliberate.

I had quite a different situation the night before in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where Kiri Te Kanawa gave a recital, and I realized part-way through why the large audience hardly made a sound -- the soprano sang softly and intimately through most of the program. If you wanted to hear, you had to behave. Sure enough, even the usual coughing and sneezing and wheezing seemed to diminish as the recital proceeded. It was a wonderful effect -- the beauty of the singing, the refinement of Brian Zeger's piano accompaniment and a large audience hanging onto every note.

I really do think it was the nature of the music-making that did the trick. I've noticed the same thing at an unamplified play when the actors speak subtly. People really can listen quietly if they try. Too bad it's not the rule.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:26 AM | | Comments (8)


One has the feeling that the best concerts are those in which, after the final chord, there is a moment of silence, and only after that moment the audience errupts in applause. These are of course rare, but truly outstanding (as opposite to merely good or even very good) concerts are rare.

As for audience behaviour, I can't say things that can not be printed so I will not say anything.

Oh go ahead -- I can always put in asterisks as needed. (I do agree wholeheartedly about the moment of silence thing. How rare, but how satisfying, it is. The eager applause has a long history, of course. I've been quite surprised how clap-happy the Met crowd was in days of yore -- many's the Met performance on Sirius Radio where you hear ovations drowning out the last moments of an opera.)

I've had the strangest things happen to me in the Kennedy Center Opera House during performances such as people invading my personal space (almost sitting in my lap!), falling on me, and trying to talk to me during performances. My favorite, though, was what I call the "sniffing symphony". Two people behind us kept sniffing and making odd noises, while someone beside them was scratching his leg. It sounded something like, "Sniff sniff, scratch...scratch sniff scratch, sniff scratch sniff"...etc. I was struggling not to laugh...

I have experienced the lovebird phenomenon as well...but the two in front of me were teenagers in prom dress and tux at a Sunday matinee.

Thanks for sharing. I feel your pain. TIM

I also have experienced something very annoying,sitting next to me at a Live in HD from the Metropolitan two weeks ago. This man was eating popcorn,I could hear him chewing on it. I had to find another seat after the first act of Turandot.

That's the inevitable downside, I guess, of opera at the cineplex. TIM

I heard that guy cry out at Sunday's performance, too. Sounded like "Well done!" to me. People yell "Bravo!" at other operas. What's the etiquette for Wagner, though, when we also hold applause until the end? As for candy or throat lozenge wrappers, they should be added to the list in the announcer's warning about cell phones and gadgets before the show begins. They are unbelievably disruptive! Two situations where I've noticed almost total audience silence: Classical guitar recitals at An die Musik; one concert by the Columbia Orchestra here in Howard County with a program no different from the regular symphony concert and with small kids in the audience, too!

Thanks for the report. I'd like to think that the shout came from an eager, happy patron, but my imagination isn't that deep. TIM

You know, back in the day it wasn't too uncommon for audiences to heckle the musicians on stage, ex. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring premier. I know this is a classically established piece, but I wouldn't mind a challenge from the audience now and then. People feel more connected at sporting events and pop because they can be loud and feel engaged with the players. There is a myth of classical silence. additionally, I get annoyed when the audience (half of which falls asleep in the performance), wakes up at the end and gives standing ovations AT EVERY CONCERT.

The worst indcident of this type I had to endure was during one of Carlos Kleiber's all-too-few performances at the MET. Not even the combination of Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti (with Thomas Hampson an outstading Schaunard) under Kleiber's expert baton could keep the gentleman in front of me awake - and he was a snorer. The use of physical force rarely appeals to me, but that night it began to seem like a good idea!

If we could all act on our impulses when confronted with such nuisances, stretchers and wheelchairs would be lined up outside the door of many a performance.

Then I won't bring my jawbreakers and Bonomo Taffy if I have to sit in front of some opera snobs.

Actually, this blog entry speaks for many of us who pay these high prices and have to hear the loudness of those about us.
I shudder to contemplate the bloodbath if Tim Smith is allowed to carry a baseball bat into the concert hall. But, he'd get an acquittal.

On all counts. TIM.

It would seem that some people have no concert manners. I was a performance recently where the people in front of me brought in their "leftovers" from intermission and started munching away! It's live, people, not a movie theatre!!

Thanks for commenting. What a sad state we're in these days. TIM

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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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