Why don’t they boo more at the opera?

by on April 17, 2009 at 5:51 am in Music | Permalink

From Freakonomics blog:

Terry Teachout, meditating on a rare outburst of booing
at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, wonders if classical music and
theater are being diminished by a superabundance of standing ovations
and a scarcity of negative feedback. What if theater and orchestra audiences behaved more like blog commenters?

What are the options?  You might argue that older people are less grumpy but I'm not sure that approach will succeed.

"Signaling refined taste" comes to mind but that, taken alone, requires some negative feedback as well.  Try listening to what informed viewers say to each other in art galleries.  There is plenty of negative mixed in with the positive, even if you think the blend is a phony one.

I believe that the opera-going demographic wishes to signal "magnanimity."  When these high-status people are slighted, as they might be by a bad performance, their privately optimal response is to ignore the slight.  Reacting to the slight suggests that they have let it bother them; it is a sign of low status to be bothered by what are ultimately low status entities.

Magnanimity is an underrated concept in signaling theory, in part because it has such quiet manifestations.  It is Holmes's "dog that didn't bark." 

That so many people signal magnanimity in the very public opera house, but less so in the private art gallery, is a telling indication of how you should interpret much of the positive public feedback you receive.

How many of you are into signaling magnanimity?

1 bradigan April 17, 2009 at 6:13 am

I think you may be over-thinking it. Most people watch live performances invested in the performers. When a ballerina stumbles you don’t feel slighted, you feel bad for her. And when she recovers, you are relieved and let her know. Of course, when it’s over you go home and tell your friends that the show was bad, that the ballerina could barely keep upright.

The difference between during and after, is the degree of confrontation. It’s easy to go home and pen a nasty review or whisper to your friends at an art gallery that you think the painting sucks or to write a nasty blog entry. It’s difficult to tell someone to her face that you think she’s terrible. Take a look at the comment section on any youtube post to see how we let our naughty ids run wild protected by the remove of the internet.

2 Alex F April 17, 2009 at 6:35 am

I find that people tend to applaud a lot, and rarely boo, at most live performances. I’ve never been to a play where the actors didn’t get standing ovations at the end, and every rock show I’ve been to has had lots of cheering — even for the lame opening acts. These are not all high status, “opera-going crowd” events. (Incidentally, even if I don’t like a play or a classical music show, I usually appreciate the performances. It’s not true that I always appreciate the creation of art I don’t like, or bad rock music for that matter.)

3 Stefano Bertolo April 17, 2009 at 6:58 am

In Italy there actually is a specific word (“loggionisti”, i.e. those who attend opera in the “loggione”=mezzanine, i.e. the cheapest seats in the house) to describe fanatically devoted opera fans that think nothing of booing down the brigthest operatic star of the moment should s/he fall short of the loggionistas’ memory of epic performances by the likes of Callas and Di Stefano. Cities such as Parma and Modena (where opera is frequently a passion of the blue collar demographic) are traditional strongholds of the loggionisti.

4 Tom April 17, 2009 at 7:09 am

Interesting question. I think a lot of it comes down to in-person vice written interaction. You might just as well ask why a music critic is so much more critical in print than in person. There are a couple of factors: 1) it requires more courage to be critical to someone’s face–there is fear of immediate retribution. 2) the excitement of a live performance is contagious–if anyone around you is enjoying it, you are probably more likely to enjoy it (and even if you are both not enjoying it, there is some pleasure from sharing the emotion which might put you in a better mood and make you less likely to be unpleasant to the performer). 3) additional time away from the performance to think about what you’ve just seen/read allows you to think through things that maybe could have been better–but I don’t think you think of additional things you liked in the same time. 4) maybe most important–as I tell fellow performers when they seem nervous–virtually everyone in an audience at a live performance is there because they WANT to enjoy it. I don’t think the inclination to be pleased is anything like that in reading a blog–or in doing written reviews of performances, for that matter.

In any event, there is still ample range of audience response for the performers to know how they’ve done — from polite, “you tried hard” applause to Domingo’s 50-minute standing O at the Met. And *most* performers are doing it for internal motivations — and are also relying on feedback from their performing peers — neither of which are very much dependent on audience feedback.

5 Sean April 17, 2009 at 7:36 am

Terry Teachout certainly hasn’t been going to the same operas as me. High-concept stagings are totally old hat and audiences are getting tired of them. The problem certainly isn’t that they are too radical, I’m sure, it’s that the staging probably makes a nonsense of the story, interferes with the music etc.

Crass stagings of opera by theatre directors who don’t understand music are distressingly common.

6 Bishop April 17, 2009 at 7:39 am

Actually I think Teachout and this post are simply wrong. Booing is most definitely not “highly unusual” at the Met, if not near as common as at La Scala and other houses. I almost never hear a boo at any other kind of performance, but at the opera it’s an occasional experience. Opera fans are sometimes fanatics, and when a director with a lame concept or a soprano with ambitions beyond her abilities graces the stage, those fanatics don’t hold back.

7 anon April 17, 2009 at 7:45 am

I’m magnanimous with my ex-wife.

8 Paul Zrimsek April 17, 2009 at 8:07 am

It’s grade inflation for performers. The interesting question is why it only happens in America (my opera-director friend from England assures me that this is the case. She hates it even more than I do, which is really saying something).


9 Meisner-Trained April 17, 2009 at 8:45 am

Another of these is:

You go to a classic play with a very popular actor — I specifically remember Brian Dennehey AND Christopher Plummer in “Inherit the Wind” — and, when that actor comes onstage there is a long, massive ovation.

It is ugly. William Esper, the great NYC acting teacher, says that it is the audience congratulating THEMSELVES for being there.

It FORCES the actor to break the Fourth Wall, as you must not only hear them, but also acknowledge them. Any emotional preparation you’ve done for the scene is ruined.

This is one of the (numerous) reasons that we don’t have much great theater anymore, or great acting, or great audiences.


10 Andrew April 17, 2009 at 9:17 am

Steve, not everything is about immigration. Do you think you are personifying the “man with a hammer dilemma” exemplified by many experts?

I think there may be a cutoff point where the world would be better off without some people, and that cutoff line may be related to culture or IQ, but I think the cutoff is pretty low, especially under a libertarian world where talent is rewarded and everyone gets to decide on their own cutoff line (kind of like, ya know, freedom of association). And, smart, patriotic politicians are not necessarily above the line. Luckily, we don’t get decide other people’s cutoff point to a great degree because the government is still fairly inept, whereas Nazi Germany was pretty efficient.

11 David Derrick April 17, 2009 at 9:29 am

When it comes to opera, it’s because there are very few audiences (and fewer than there used to be) with the cultural chutzpah and self-confidence.

12 Erich April 17, 2009 at 9:50 am

I definitely signal magnanimity, and it is nice to have a new concrete term for my behavior. I believe I grew into this as a low cost strategy for an introvert that shuns whining. I also practice fish on a bicycle’s blog commenting approach, though that form of the signal is not as easily seen. They call it lurking for a reason.

13 Peter April 17, 2009 at 10:04 am

I like Tyler’s answer. It explains why people boo in many sporting events but not in golf or tennis.

It would be interesting to know whether the booing levels at, say, a football or baseball game are greater in the cheap seats, than in the expensive box seats.

14 Andrew April 17, 2009 at 10:13 am

“Lurking” is it? Surely it doesn’t have its own “self-satisfaction” component, does it?

15 dWj April 17, 2009 at 10:30 am

It surprises me that it takes until Paul Zrimsek’s comment for someone to mention grade inflation. The standing ovation is the gentleman’s A- of the performing arts.

People who have never heard of signaling theory know that there is no signal in a pooling equilibrium. The standing ovation is no longer as “magnanimous” as it would be were it not so pervasive.

16 mulp April 17, 2009 at 11:31 am

Let’s see. These performers deliver a good, maybe even great performance, and they aren’t making millions of dollars nor charging $250 for tickets in a huge stadium like the rock superstars, so why shouldn’t operatic or orchestral or chamber music performances warrant the encouragement of applause and standing ovations. These are people who work very hard for little compensation relative to their skills and effort.

Now if the bankers and traders and CEOs who led corporations into ruin, and got rewarded tens of millions, were given standing ovations when they got out of their limo, or appeared before the stockholders, that would be something to question.

17 dp April 17, 2009 at 11:42 am

The high cost of performing art events today means people wish to justify the expense by convincing themselves that they enjoyed the experience. Even if you did not, to boo exacts a social cost, as you would be exposing the foolishness of your fellow audience members.

18 shecky April 17, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Heh. Why would Tyler ever consider Julian Simon when he has Steve Sailer’s wisdom to consume?

I’ve heard reports of the old Vaudeville days, when audiences might have little tolerance for acts that simply weren’t up to snuff. It seems an interesting “survival of the fittest” scenario among what was a more lowbrow crowd.

19 Peter April 17, 2009 at 3:36 pm

There has been some modeling. From John H. Miller and Scott E. Page,”The Standing Ovation Problem”, at http://zia.hss.cmu.edu/miller/papers/ovation.pdf:

“The basic SOP [Standing Ovation Problem] can be stated as: A brilliant economics lecture ends and the audience begins to applaud. The applause builds and tentatively, a few audience members may or may not decide to stand. Does a standing ovation ensue or does the enthusiasm fizzle?”

— and —

“The SOP is an apt metaphor for social situations in which agents make binary decisions and interact spatially. It applies to a wide ranging set of phenomena such as whether to send children to public or private school, to commit crimes (Glaeser, et al., 1996), to violate the law (Picker, 1997), to riot (Granovetter, 1978), to search for jobs (Menczer and Tassier, 2001), to retire (Axtell and Epstein, 1999), to vote for a particular party (Mayer and Brown, 1998), to experiment with drugs, to engage in unprotected or premarital sex (Durlauf, 1997),
to pay your electric bill, or even whether to decorate your house with strands of multi-colored bulbs during the holiday season. These various phenomena all share elements of the SOP: people are socially influenced, they have varying degrees of sophistication, and information flows over a network.”

20 Andrew April 17, 2009 at 3:42 pm

There was a mixed standing ovation at church Sunday. I didn’t know how to feel about it. But, they dealt with it smartly. “All rise and sing…”

21 tieffenbach April 17, 2009 at 4:16 pm

“I think you would need data from people who attend opera regularly in different countries. I suspect booing/not booing is largely a cultural thing.”

Booing is, for instance, commonplace at the Geneva Opera, where avant-garde productions unmistakenly triggers a lengthy amount of whistlings.

22 Barkley Rosser April 17, 2009 at 5:42 pm

I am not a big fan of booing at classical concerts, atlhough
clearly opera is where it is most likely to happen.

OTOH, I do think that there has been a ridiculous proliferation
of standing ovations. It is indeed a form of “grade inflation”
that has degraded the form.

23 jonm April 17, 2009 at 8:07 pm

I am always reminded of the passage from the Gulag Archipelago about the standing ovation for Stalin,
repeated at http://www.mcsweeneys.net/books/everythingthatrises.contest45.html . I suspect that not wanting to be taken for a grouch is at the heart of it.

As others noted, this tendency is stronger in the US than in most countries, and where the audiences are wealthy but generally ignorant about the performance itself.

24 allison April 18, 2009 at 10:44 pm

–When it comes to opera, it’s because there are very few audiences (and fewer than there used to be) with the cultural chutzpah and self-confidence.

And few audiences with cultural knowledge and technical knowledge. Less and less of the audience hears enough to know a good from a bad performance. They clap and cheer when others do because at least they are then relieved to know when they are supposed to clap.

25 ARM Laptop Battery May 18, 2009 at 10:52 am

I think you would need data from people who attend opera regularly in different countries. I suspect booing/not booing is largely a cultural thing, or at least one’s culture needs to be factored into the signaling analysis.

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