Artillery Row

Art is not all about you

It is not elitist to expect audiences to be quiet

A questionnaire popped up in my inbox the other day, asking for my views on live musical and theatrical events. The prompt seemed to have been a visit to Glyndebourne, but it soon became apparent that this was a generic questionnaire (other people received the same from other companies). The market researchers wanted to gather information about audience habits, before and since Covid, to find out what might entice people to go more often. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing, so I rolled up my sleeves. Then I got annoyed. Very annoyed.

Would you be more or less likely to attend an event, the questionnaire asked, if the following were offered during the performance: the option to stand, dance, recline or sit cabaret-style; and the freedom to talk and make noise, take photos or videos, have food and drink delivered to your seat, come and go as you fancy, and use social media. Bearing in mind the context in which I had been sent the questionnaire, I considered the options. Standing through La bohème sounded painful, and dancing a bit odd, since it wasn’t an ABBA tribute act, but I was undecided about reclining. Did they mean a chaise longue (nice, bring me the grapes), an aeroplane-style seat (not much fun for the person behind), or one of those annoying slanting “rests” you get on the tube and at bus stops?

You are a snob if you go to a concert expecting to concentrate

As for the various freedoms, I reckoned it could be useful to be able to pop out to the loo, and sipping wine throughout seemed quite appealing. There my enthusiasm ran out. The thought of having a waiter squeeze past with the beers as a Shakespeare play reaches its tragic dénouement, or putting up with your neighbour at the Proms eating a kebab and receiving a succession of beeping WhatsApps is enough to make the blood boil. “Less likely”, “less likely”, “less likely”, I ticked, looking around in vain for the button that said “wouldn’t bloody go at all”.

Immersive theatrical experiences that bring performers and audience together in more fluid ways have recently become all the rage. The current production of Guys and Dolls at the Bridge Theatre, where audience members stand amongst the performers and even dance with them as the theatre transforms into a nightclub, has been wildly popular. The classical music world is not immune to innovation either. I read recently of a “theatrical concert” by the Gesualdo Six and Fretwork called “Secret Byrd”, in which audience members walked around by candlelight and ate soup and bread, as if at a 16th century banquet, whilst costumed singers serenaded them. Brilliant!

Imaginative initiatives like these are not the same thing as encouraging people to treat a conventional concert hall or theatre like their living room, however. Creating an “anything goes” ethos in public spaces only places the individual front and centre in a communal setting. It’s YOU that matters. Yes, you. Not the actor who’s spent months learning his lines, nor the soloist coaxing the most exquisite quiet passage out of her violin, nor the person next to you who has saved up for months for this special treat. You just go right ahead with your noisy conversation. Broadcast music on your phone if you want — might as well; it’s accepted in every other public space.

This sort of attitude is the fashion now, as epitomised by the M&S “This Christmas, do only what you like” ad that caused a furore last week. According to several recent articles in The Guardian, you are a snob if you go to a concert or play with any expectation of being able to concentrate. “Relaxed performances” for adults and children with learning disabilities and autism are, we would all agree, a good thing, but one Guardian journalist advocated recently for the majority of performances to be relaxed, with just “the occasional ‘uptight’ performance, for those people who like to watch their theatre in a more elite atmosphere”. Another put the onus on venues to adapt to changing audience behaviour, not the other way around, accusing people who objected to popcorn at a performance of Das Rheingold at ENO of “class snobbery and cultural elitism”.

Isn’t it insulting to suggest young people are incapable of listening quietly?

In our topsy-turvy age, this attempt to characterise focused listening as elitist is entirely predictable and deeply saddening. There is nothing elitist about silence. There are some situations in life where you simply must sit quietly and give an event your full attention — in a lesson at school, or during someone’s wedding — both out of respect for others and for your own sake, to get the most out of it. Making out that a permissive atmosphere is the only way to attract new audiences simply doesn’t wash. Isn’t it insulting to young people to suggest that they are incapable of listening quietly like anyone else?

Some argue that an audience free-for-all is the way forward because it’s how things used to be done in the past. This “authenticity” argument is rather selective, however. You might think it would be a lark to wander around during an opera, throw oranges at singers and have sex in a box, but 18th century theatre plumbing wouldn’t be so much fun. Besides, whilst a long Handel opera was written for a context in which detached listening was the norm, the same does not go for later music. A symphony contains an internal wordless narrative, which unfolds both within an individual movement and across the piece as a whole. You don’t have to listen attentively, but you might get more out of the experience if you do.

“What else would make you more likely to attend a performance?” the questionnaire asked. “The ability to bring a banjo, ukulele or kazoo into the theatre and accompany the orchestra whilst swigging moonshine from a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag,” one Twitter wag replied. The real question is, why are classical music organisations asking these questions? Some marketeer somewhere seems to be telling them that they need to reinvent their “offering” and shift the onus onto the eating, drinking and socialising that surround the performance rather than the music itself. How many people, uninterested in classical music, would really be enticed to go by the prospect of being able to talk and tweet throughout the show? It is unrealistic to think that these gimmicks will attract new audiences. Sadly, they may well put off existing ones.

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