The opera has evolved since its beginnings in the 1600s. People who attend the opera have also evolved since that time as well. As the styles and times and technologies have changed and changed the opera, it has also affected the audiences who attend opera as well.
The opera traces its roots back to Europe, from Italy to Paris and places in between. Seeing as there was not any television or movie theaters around, opera houses were the main source of entertainment. During the 1800s there no fewer than three opera houses serving the city of Paris, occasionally there were four houses states Steven Huebner by in “Opera Audiences in Paris 1830-1870.” There was the Opéra-Comique, which is where the aristocrats attended the opera. The Théátre-Lyrique was the opera house for the working man, or middle class of Paris. Huebner also goes on to state that opera houses have a “well-defined social character.” He writes that opera houses were the theater of aristocracy. That is a key term for the time, aristocracy. Opera houses were entertainment for the noble and wealthy. Huebner writes that the aristocracy felt uncomfortable at the Opéra and eventually migrated to the Théátre-Italien while the Opéra eventually drew a more middle class crowd. The Opéra on occasion drew an aristocrat crowd. There was a divide of status within the opera houses in Paris during the nineteenth century.
In Italy during the same time period there was the same type of event going on. There was a conscientious effort to reconstruct the social and cultural public that attend opera houses in Italy. It is quite difficult though discern the collective nature of group, or audience. The importance of the opera during this time is one of the reasons for the study into how it affects the audience. The opera is/and or produces a mixture of reality and mythology.
So what effect does all of this have the opera goer? It is hard to discern exactly. An audience is a collective group of people attuned to a singular fixation. There is no longer a bunch of singular people together watching a show but an audience becomes one. One of the most complex traditions of the opera house to figure out, even for seasoned opera goers, is the timing of the applause. “An opera audience, on the other hand, although often composed of many members of the one already spoken of, begins its applause more halfheartedly, often enough at the last note sung rather than the last orchestral chord of the work, a misguided enthusiasm which has often called down the wrath of the gods and Sir Thomas Beecham upon them,” writes Thomas Russell in his article “On Audiences” in Musical Times. Being in an opera house, hearing it with others who enjoy and appreciate it, gain more from being among like-minded people. The audience helps make the experience more enjoyable for the audience. There are no other distractions within the opera house. It is full of people who are there to appreciate the music.
The audience is not there to just enjoy the music or performance. They can also enhance the experience. By showing the performer they are enjoying the show it gives the performer an energy. Their reactions to the show have a direct effect on the performer themselves. In an analogy that might seem farfetched but in reality is not that different, professional wrestling has the same attributes. The World Wrestling Entertainment Company labels itself as “sports entertainment.” It is as much an athletic event as it is a novella. Since it is live, the crowd in attendance can dictate the pace and quality of the show more than the performers themselves sometimes. Plenty of wrestlers have stated the energy from the crowd gives them an extra energy boost to performer harder and better. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, when wrestling, labeled himself the “most electrifying man in sports entertainment.” He understood the connection between what he was doing and how the audience was reacting to it. The audience wields power over the performance in a way. Why would an opera singer perform at their peak when they can see into the audience and see a distracted, sleepy or half interested crowd? The relationship between audience and performer is organic. It is alive, it can breathe and it can flat line.
It is believed that an audience is formed as soon as they are gathered into the opera house. That is not true. It is not until the music comes on and lays it effect on the individual and transform them into a collective consciousness. It is not until the music begins and the performers take stage that audience is formed. Even at that point it is up to the music, and to an even more extent to the performers, to capture the audience’s imagination and turn them into a whole. Russell writes that even during intervals audience members will not speak to each other for fear of breaking the trance the show has put on them, to interrupt the emotions they themselves are feeling for another person.
Going back to Russell and his theory on opera audiences not knowing when applaud. He states that early applause can ruin a performance. When and if an early applause does happen, he states that either the wrongdoer will notice the error of their ways or the orchestrator will have to wait for the applause to die down. Either way it can ruin what would have been an enjoyable show. Russell wrote his article in 1941, the midpoint of the twentieth century. A lot had changed in that time from the operas beginnings.
Has the etiquette of nineteenth century opera goers affected how modern day concert attendees enjoy the opera? Not directly but it has in a way. The opera during the nineteenth century was divided between the working class and aristocracy. While in Europe there are still some monarchies the class system has fallen wayside to democracy throughout most of the country. There are no more opera houses strictly for the upper class and lower class, or middle class. In a way the change in society has helped the opera and the audience. The opera is no longer just a showcase for the wealthy or a big event for the working class to attend to attempt to fit in with the wealthy. Now audience members in attendance of the opera are there simply because they enjoy it and want to be there. They do not provide distractions for other patrons in attendance.
Another difference in modern day etiquette at the opera is the less formality. Again, this has to do with the standardization of class, or lack of a class system in society. Going to the opera in the nineteenth century was a big event for the noble and working class alike. For the wealthy, attending the opera was an opportunity for them to show off their wealth and make a big event of it. The working class had an opportunity to feel what is was like to be wealthy or at least appear it by wearing their best clothes and enjoy a lavish night out. That is not the case in today’s standards. In an article in “The Telegraph” titled An etiquette guide to ballet and opera for beginner it is stated that there is no more formal wear required for going to the opera. Some patrons still might wear a black tie and formal dress but it is not the norm anymore. While going to the opera was a big event that took up a whole evening including dinner that does not hold true anymore. It is not uncommon for opera goers to dish the prices of food and drink at the opera house and have a meal before the show to not have to spend money at the house. The price of eating at events has skyrocketed and with the norm in society to not show off and spend absurd amounts just to spend absurd amounts of money, eating cheaper somewhere else is not frowned upon.
A major change in the opera goer in the modern day is technology. People as a whole are so in tune with keeping connected to the world by way of technology it is difficult for them to turn themselves away. I know I check my phone while at the theater. During the nineteenth century it would have been unheard of for anyone in the audience to be doing anything other than watching the show. There are so many distractions for people today that it takes away from their enjoyment of the show. Not only that but it takes away from the performer. Remember, the audience and the performer are connected. It is very distracting for a performer to look into the audience and the see the glow from a cell phone, let alone one hundred cell phones with people having their face buried in them. It is a respect that has been lost between the audience and the performer. That is partly to blame on technology, a short attention span.
Due to the abundance of technology available to us, our attention spans are a lot shorter today than they were one hundred years ago. What started out slowly as the radio evolved into the television and has exploded into computers, laptops, cellphones, tablets and smart phones. Almost everyone has the entire knowledge of the world in their back pocket. It is difficult for people to pay attention to a show for almost a few hours, especially one as classical and methodical as opera. Opera maintains its aristocracy and elegancy in spite of the world around it. Patrons of the opera have a level of fondness for it that allow them to fully enjoy it. The access the world has now allows for a short attention span. If one is not satisfied with a program on the television in front of them they can simply search for another one or play a videogame or watch a video on the computer. There is no more sticking with something and seeing it through to the end. The opera can be excruciating for someone who is not interested in it.
The opera is an event that still carries the elegance it has since its inception. It is classy, sophisticated and cultured. It is an event that is to be respected when in attendance because of the relationship with the audience and the performers on stage. During its beginnings the opera was used as an opportunity to flaunt as much as it was to enjoy. Today, the opera is attended because it is a beloved style of music enjoyed by people all over the globe. While the opera has not changed in its four hundred years, its audience has gone through a multitude of changes.
- Allenby, David. 1993. “Richard Strauss’s Elektra by Bryan Gilliam; Listening to Strauss Operas: The Audience’s.” The Musical Times, January: 34.
- Huebner, Steven. 1989. “Opera Audiences in Paris 1830-1870.” Music & Letters, May: 206-225.
- Russell, Thomas. 1941. “On Audiences.” The Musical Times, Feburary: 54-56. Accessed December 01, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/921273
- Sorba, Carlotta. 2006. “To Please the Public: Composers and Audiences in Nineteenth-Century Italy.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 595-614.
- The Telegraph. 2013. “An etiquette guide to ballet and opera for beginners.” March.