A method to this madness:
A few words about booing at the opera
The opera world was riveted this December not on a grand opera but on a soap opera: the saga of Roberto Alagna, who was loudly booed at La Scala in Milan after he sang “Celeste Aïda,” the opening tenor aria in Verdi’s Aïda. It was not the booing that caused the storm, but the fact that Alagna left the stage, refusing to return. An understudy, Antonello Palombi, replaced him, with no time even to take off his jeans and put on a costume. Palombi was roundly cheered at the end of the opera— more for his heroism than his voice.
La Scala subsequently cancelled the rest of the Alagna’s Aïda appearances and cast doubt upon his future with the house; while he, in turn, said he would sue La Scala for the money due him for the entire run.
Alagna’s version of the event was quite imaginative. He said he had been insulted even before the performance began when three ominous backstage figures made karate-chop motions at him as he prepared to go on stage. He also claimed that the booing started even before he began to sing, which caused him to develop both high blood pressure and low blood sugar, both of which were responsible for the strain in his voice.
In truth, none of the players at La Scala that night acted nobly. The house probably invited trouble by offering Alagna the leading male role of Radames, since his voice lacks the heroic heft that audiences demand in that role. But one can hardly blame management for reacting strongly to Alagna’s graceless exit, which is almost unheard of in the opera world.
Aka “Dracula and Draculetta”
The 43-year-old tenor is hardly noted for exemplary behavior. Alagna and his soprano wife, Angela Gheorgiu, are as famous for their tantrums, demands and walk-offs, their fits over wigs and rehearsal schedules, as for their often fine performances. In the business, they are known as “Dracula and Draculetta” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” among other unflattering names.
In this case, Alagna outdid himself in tastelessness. After he exited the stage, shaking his fist at the audience (or giving a military salute— reports differ), he went out into the cold, where he snapped some photos on his cell phone and gave onlookers an a cappella performance of Puccini’s “Addio, fiorito asil,” Pinkerton’s farewell to Japan in Madama Butterfly. A melodramatic farewell to La Scala, perhaps.
The concept of expressing disapproval at a performance dates back to the early Greeks. Booing has been associated mostly with Italian opera houses, where not only singers but composers as well have received the same treatment. Rossini’s The Barber of Seville was booed at its premiere, and so was Verdi’s La traviata. La Scala audiences have booed the best of them: Renata Tebaldi because she wasn’t Maria Callas, Callas because she wasn’t Tebaldi. Mirella Freni was booed by Renata Scotto fans. Renee Fleming was booed at La Scala because the audience didn’t like her interpolated runs in Lucrezia Borgia, after which the conductor, Gianluigi Gelmetti, became so upset that he collapsed twice on stage and had to be carted off by ambulance. At the San Carlo in Naples— the toughest house of all— even the native-born Enrico Caruso was booed.
American opera audiences can be difficult, too. Some years ago I heard vociferous booing at the Met when director Robert Wilson appeared for a stage call at the end of a very stylized production of Lohengrin. Just this December audiences at the same house booed Plácido Domingo— not as a singer, but as a conductor. In this case Domingo was criticized for maintaining his own metronome-like pace in conflict with what one audience member called soprano Anna Netrebko’s “artistic vision.”
When Muti talked back
At La Scala, this unattractive habit can be attributed mainly to the loggionisti, those people sitting in the highest, least expensive seats, who feel they have the right to make their negative opinions known. Their rationale is that people wealthy enough to buy good tickets don’t know or care about opera— they come merely to be seen, whereas the loggionisti arrive with encyclopedic knowledge (and often entire scores of the opera). When La Scala was renovated some years ago, an attempt was made to silence them by eliminating standing-room seats. The effort, not surprisingly, failed.
Booing is only one weapon in the loggionisti arsenal. Words like cretino, which needs no translation, are heard at times, and bouquets are thrown, not of flowers but of radishes (in the case of Callas) and turnips (for Renata Scotto).
Sometimes the loggionisti don’t get away with their actions. Both tenor Salvatore Licitra and conductor Riccardo Muti were booed at La Scala in 2000 when Licitra failed to interpolate the traditional high C in “Di quella pira” from Il trovatore. Muti, who usually opposes any note that’s not original to the score, turned around and informed the loggionistithat an opera house is not a circus. Earlier, the tenor Franco Corelli was so angered by a heckler in Naples that he ran offstage in full costume and burst into the box where the culprit sat. On the other hand, Luciano Pavarotti, after a poorly-received 1992 performance, gracefully apologized and said the audience had been right to criticize him.
Opera managements differ in their response to audience heckling. At the Met in 2003— the Joseph Volpe era— a man who booed the Canadian soprano Alexandra Deshorties was thrown out at intermission by security guards. Peter Gelb, who now heads the company, might well react differently. After the Alagna incident, Gelb was reported as saying that an audience has the right to boo. He did, however, draw the line at tomato throwing. Clearly Gelb feels, as do others who favor this practice, that an informed audience response, whether negative or positive, keeps management on its toes and results in higher performance standards.
Who boos an orchestra?
Interestingly, opera is the single art form that receives this treatment regularly. How many times have you heard booing when a pianist flubs a note or three, or a violinist’s intonation is poor? Or a ballerina trips? (Not heard, I suspect, since the 1913 world premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, whose music caused an actual riot.) Even atonal contemporary music is generally spared vocal disapproval; instead, audience members nod off, rustle programs and peek at their watches.
Opera lovers are a breed in themselves. Many of them know and care little about other forms of classical music. And they’re more overtly passionate than other music lovers. If an opera doesn’t sound as it should to their ears, they take it personally. In short, they’re typically like opera itself, i.e., lacking subtlety and prone to give vent to their feelings.
The real issue is what booers gain by their action. For the singer onstage, even if he or she sticks it out stoically for the rest of the opera, it’s almost impossible to recover fully from such an insult. Anyone who knows Aïda recognizes that for a tenor to come on stage in Act I and immediately launch into his difficult aria, with its high B-flat ending, is a real challenge. Reviews that appeared the preceding week, after the opening night of Aida, referred to Alagna’s nervousness during that first aria and his significant improvement later.
The body is the instrument
The voice, after all, is unlike other instruments. A violin doesn’t get a stomach ache or a nasal drip. It doesn’t arrive at the hall sleepless and headachy after a six-hour-delayed plane flight. It doesn’t pick up a flu from the concierge. When an oboe reed is shot, the player pulls another one out of the case. But for the singer, the instrument is the body. You can’t carry a spare pair of vocal chords. Any tiny thing can have a negative impact on it, which is why singers tend to be so obsessive about their daily living.
When their bodies fail them and they are really unable to sing well, singers face another problem. To cancel a performance often spells trouble, because audiences tend to speculate that the singer wasn’t really ill but found something better to do. Consequently, some singers go on when they shouldn’t— like Maria Callas, who completed one act of Norma with a high fever and against her better judgment. Naturally, she was booed when her withdrawal was announced after the first act. (People didn’t believe she was sick because her voice didn’t sound that bad.)
So what is the antidote? The conductor Giuseppe Patane may have found the solution in 1982, when the Met audience booed tenor Carlo Bini, who replaced had Domingo. Writing of that performance in a recent New York Times letter, a player with the Met orchestra reported that the conductor, Giuseppe Patane was so angry that he stopped conducting.
“Shame on you! Have at least some respect for Ponchielli!” he shouted. “If you don’t like it, don’t clap.”
It worked. The audience sat in stunned silence for the rest of the opera. To Bini’s great credit, he sang through not only the opera but the whole run.
Patene was right. Any singer facing a smattering of weak applause or a house that empties out after an act knows something is wrong. The audience’s disappointment registers clearly, but without an interruption of the performance or the shattering of fragile egos.
I can’t leave the subject of booing without mentioning one kind of booing that is not only acceptable but downright fun. That is when the character, rather than the singer who portrays him or her, is booed. Adults almost never do that, but kids do. When, a few years ago, the Opera Company of Philadelphia hosted high school students at a dress rehearsal of Puccini’s Tosca, I heard the students let out a prolonged boo as the singer portraying the evil Scarpia came out to take his solo bow. It was the best compliment they could have given him.
To read a response, click here.
Respond to this Article