Booing is an established part of opera, as is the grand exit by the recipient of the booing. It's an established part of baseball too, with a series of responding gestures.
The NYT offers the thin gruel that silent responses, no clapping, should be punishment enough. Nonsense. Showy, highly visible departures during the play make the same point. The The Vertical Hour saw a few of these, as I recall. In the same season, The Faith Healer had several showy departures in the performance I attended, as well as an ocean of empty seats after intermission.
Booing hit its stride in the 19th century, when opera was part circus, part blood sport. Staging conventions called for curtain calls after each act, and even the continuity-shattering practice of having singers bow following their arias. Booing, like cheering, was a passionate comment on star performers. Opera singers still occasionally take a hit. In 2006, the tenor Roberto Alagna was booed in “Aida” at La Scala and stormed off the stage, making international news. Years before, Renata Scotto was booed as Norma, and worse: on her entrance in a telecast “Luisa Miller,” somebody shouted “Brava, Callas!”
Mostly, though, booing at the opera today expresses something quite different: a belief that the art form itself is imperiled by crazily updated stagings. Recently, booing was heard at the Met’s new productions of “Tosca” and “La Sonnambula.” These classic works were given the modern Euro-treatment, and many in the audiences weren’t buying. Nowadays, it’s directors and designers (German critics snidely refer to them as “Kinder mit Konzept”) who are most often booed.
The tenor Roberto Alagna, left, walked off the stage in the middle of a performance of Marco Brescia/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesThe tenor Roberto Alagna, foreground, walked off the stage in the middle of a performance of “Aida” at La Scala in 2006 after the audience booed.
In the theater, preserving the past isn’t such an issue. Even with revivals or Shakespeare, theater audiences seem to have less of a fixed sense of how things should be done. And in the case of a new play or musical, there’s no tradition to live up to. Also, with new and unfamiliar material, it’s not always easy to assign the blame. Writer, director, producer, designers, performers – who should we boo?
It’s also harder to boo at the theater, because there are fewer opportunities. Actors, unlike opera singers, almost never step out of character to acknowledge applause. (If they did, they’d almost certainly be booed.) The curtain call is really the only obvious place to boo a play, but while directors and designers regularly take bows at the opera, they rarely do at the theater. In practice, the only people we can boo in the theater are the actors — vulnerable targets, but not always the culprits.
Of course, the more fundamental question is: Is it O.K. to boo a performance? In “Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium,” Judith Martin, the doyenne of American politeness, says it is; if we are encouraged to applaud, we also must be allowed to boo. Ah, but she points out that she herself has never booed at a performance.
That’s also what I heard when I conducted a small straw poll among my theater-minded buddies. “Is it O.K. to boo at the theater?,” I asked. Most responded yes. “Have you ever booed?” This time the answer was unanimous: no. (One friend confessed to booing Captain Hook in “Peter Pan,” but I told her that didn’t count.)
Personally, I’m torn. In principle, I agree with Miss Manners. But even if we’ve cleared the etiquette hurdle, there are deeper considerations, ranging from kindness (who wants to hurt the feelings of an actor or an enthusiastic audience?) to self-preservation (who would dare to publicly excoriate a boy and his war horse?).
Today, I’m a theater critic with a platform to express myself. But as a civilian, I’ll admit I contemplated booing. Years ago, in Los Angeles I attended “Annie Get Your Gun,” starring Debbie Reynolds. My companion that evening commented — loudly enough to be heard in the rows around us — that Ms. Reynolds was rather too obviously playing to the audience. Ultimately, he booed her. I was simultaneously horrified and charmed, and thinking back on it, I still am. Imagine caring so much — about “Annie Get Your Gun” — that you can’t contain your sense of moral outrage! On the other hand … hey, it’s Debbie Reynolds in “Annie Get Your Gun.” What were you expecting?
The Metropolitan Opera's 2009 production of Andrea Mohin/The New York TimesThe Metropolitan Opera’s 2009 production of “Tosca,” with Karita Mattila, was booed by the audience.
If I were going to boo now, I’d establish clear ethical guidelines, including separating mere incompetence (which is just sad, and doesn’t deserve further censure), from egregious sins like grandstanding, upstaging and generally pandering. And I would maintain that booing during a performance is playing dirty – it dampens everything that follows. Instead, wait for the curtain call, which after all is by definition a forum for audience expression. Make sure booing implicates only its specific target. Performers often bow in groups, and there’s already too much collateral damage in the world.
Finally, I’d consider alternative punishment. Not clapping at all is similarly disapproving, and it’s more elegant. And there’s always the option of leaving early, which is showy and has the additional advantage of sparing an unhappy audience member further misery. A wise friend who is also a frequent early-exiter calls this his “life is too short” rule.
In the end, I think I’ll stick with the silent treatment. But I don’t necessarily condemn those who boo. In fact, I wish I saw more thoughtful responses of all kinds. Surely, the knee-jerk standing ovation that rewards anything we’ve paid $150 to see shouldn’t be the only reaction open to us.
Is this fair?