Raucous or polite? Audience behavior in live performances

Another short post tonight since I’m still mulling a more complete discussion of the abstract difference between popular and classical music, and it struck me that one of the significant differences was not in the music itself but in the audiences.

I was thinking of two instances of distraction and annoyance during live performance — the first being the irksome pure-tone hearing aid feedback that annoyed the living daylights out of everyone during the concert I attended in Santa Barbara. The second was a very different indignity during an infamous Journey concert in 1986 in North Carolina involving what has charitably been called an unidentified flying object and a much less charitably infuriated lead singer that culminated in the angry demand hollered from the stage: “Hit him for me!”

My mind then wandered off to the stories I’d read about the paid clappers in old classical audiences — way back when classical music wasn’t yet called classical music but was simply the recently written stuff you heard in the theater while standing in sawdust and munching walnuts. And if a singer didn’t pay their clappers, they might show up that night armed with week-old produce.

Simply put, one had to bribe the audience or else risk a cabbage to the head, no matter how good one was that night.

There really is a sense of crystalline everpresence to classical music nowdays. There doesn’t seem to be an awareness among modern audiences that Handel wasn’t already 300 years dead on the opening night of “Giulio Cesare in Egitto.”

I imagine the contemporaneous performers of 300 years earlier and today’s contemporary performers could connect with one another over having coped with raucous (and possibly drunk) audiences as a matter of course — quite different from today’s classical performers who are expected to soldier on in surgical fashion in the face of less physically intrusive distractions.

I’ve heard of psychologists and music teachers using military training methods to permit instrumentalists to continue without so much as a dropped note even when surprised with a slammed door or a two-by-four hurled to the floor behind them. Such techniques should be mandatory in music schools, but the performers themselves should be thankful that at least they won’t have to dodge beer bottles on stage. (All bets are off of course, if we’re talking about La Scala.)

Then again, dying on stage in the face of dead silence is probably just as rattling.

ETA: A short note — have just finished a lovely little book focusing on the very high male voice as created by the barber’s knife, will be following with a few thoughts. However, the author’s discussion of audience (and performers!) behavior during the heyday of opera was fascinating. A cabbage to the head was small change compared to the behavior of the pit and the boxes, and it’s beginning to remind me more and more of modern audience behavior. Some of the performer’s demands (“I must enter the scene on horseback at all times! Wielding a sword! And wearing a helmet with seven four-foot tall red plumes!”) are redolent of the most comical moments in “This Is Spinal Tap.” Britney Spears, David Bowie, and Madonna apparently had very little on Marchesi and Caffarelli for eye-popping scene entrances.

It makes me wonder if, in two hundred years time, people aren’t going to be filing quietly into auditoriums in their best clothing and listening to minutely perfect performances of Queen or Van Halen’s greatest hits in rapt attention while shushing those rude enough to whisper during the solos.