Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron: A grand history of operatic booing

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[Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron are the authors of the forthcoming “Opera Seasons: Power and Performance at the Metropolitan.”]

THE fracas during curtain calls for the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s “Tosca” last Monday is just the latest episode in a grand history of operatic booing. Frank expressions of displeasure pierced the applause at the conclusion of Act II and exploded when the production team took its bows at the end of the opera. Many in the audience took umbrage at the villain’s lewd advances toward a statue of the Madonna; at the failure by Tosca to make her customary sweeping exit after stabbing the villain to death; and at the substitution, after an awkward pause, ofa stunt double for her suicidal leap.

Opera-goers of long standing and fierce memory will recall many episodes of booing. End-of-act bows have always cued the public to express approbation, indifference or disapproval. And many on Monday voiced the last, a prerogative that though common to other arenas of spectatorship is the signature privilege of opera.

The history of this tradition has its own three acts: the earliest audiences took aim mainly at composers; later patrons focused their attacks on singers; and, most recently, designers and directors have taken the heat. Today, managers hope to lure new audiences with radical sets and staging. And audiences have responded.

On Monday, Puccini was an innocent bystander, but during his lifetime he was the target of a wildly hostile demonstration. The hooting then was not over “Tosca,” despite fears that its violence — torture, murder and attempted rape — went too far even by operatic standards. It was over “Madama Butterfly,” four years later, at its La Scala premiere in 1904. During the first act, a shout rang out from the audience accusing Puccini of having recycled one of his old tunes. Before long, heckling spread through the house. In Act II, the laughing and whistling drowned out the music.

Puccini had been reviled, but he was in excellent company. Verdi had suffered a similar fate in 1853 when mocking Venetians turned the first night of “La Traviata” into a fiasco; Parisians armed with noisemakers ran roughshod over Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” at its 1861 French premiere. Through the 19th century and into the 20th, when new operas were produced with regularity and treated as popular entertainments, their composers were well known and fair game.

In the 1950s and ’60s when Rudolph Bing was general manager at the Met, singers became the primary focus of audiences’ attention, and booing was rampant.

To Bing’s great irritation, the most raucous responses — protests and applause — tended to originate in the standing-room section. Bing accused the standees of belonging to claques paid by singers to cheer their performances and shout down their rivals. In fact, though, most of the boos and bravos were genuine. In 1964, Bing announced that he would ban standing room altogether when audiences booed and even threatened the soprano Leonie Rysanek, but he later relented...

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