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Our right to outrage



I am not going to say a word about the William Tell production itself; there, you can relax.

I do worry, though, about the world of opera and its direction of travel, or perhaps it is the direction it is being forced to travel? I am not sure yet, although we have given it the odd nudge for sure.

Audiences have always - I mean, forever, since Pontius was a Pilate - had opinions, been outraged by art and felt inclined to express that outrage verbally. But now they can express it on Twitter and better still, gather about them a consensus. What we saw in the ROH performance of Tell was Twitter mob mentality in the flesh. We have become used to joining in with choruses of disapproval and we are so much more comfortable with it nowadays. The social media mob mentality emboldens people to try out their outrage where before they might have kept it to themselves for fear that they stood apart. Now they know they can find those of like mind easily by casting a few bon mots into the ether and seeing who bites. So maybe a boo in the house is a vocal Twitter hashtag #boowhenisaygo! As we know, in particular from Jon Ronson's recent book, social media is exquisitely anti-social and has turned us into a nation of nasty, spiteful bullies.

But behaviour aside, what I am finding more prevalent in the realm of audience opinion is the expectation that the right to express it is accompanied by the right for it to be agreed with.  There is only one way to do things and to do anything differently is a risky fiddling with the intentions of the composer and librettist. It is also immoral, apparently. It is hard to argue with someone who has based their opinion, of say, our "party scene" in Aida on a non-specific and undefined set of moral criteria. Outrage (for there is plenty of that in emails and letters when the writer considers their favourite opera to have been mutilated) is now supported by claims that "others around me", or "tweets on Twitter after the show" and even reviews, share it. I half expect there to be threats of a cyber-survey to prove their point. 

I recently spent an entire weekend in an (admittedly interesting) email exchange with a patron who was unspeakably cross that we had removed the "vision" from Suor Angelica. It wasn't enough to tell me that she had found that omission to be a disappointment (it is her favourite opera and has seen it countless times) but it was, she was absolutely certain, NOT what Puccini intended, and we were a disgrace for assuming we knew better. I tried to point out that the "transformational" music that Puccini wrote, and which the patron believes to be the most profound evidence of our insult,  could be interpreted in many ways, as could his inclusion of the vision in the first place. I was surprised to learn that as an atheist, my interlocutor was not making a religious point, but was merely defending Puccini.

I have long believed the opera audience to be changing at an alarming rate, that they more than ever behave unpredictably and even capriciously. The financial crisis may have contributed, meaning that the pulling in of financial horns makes the audience cherry pick and thus expect a performance that will fit with their idea of a good production. Countenancing the concept that all productions are an artistic, interpretive enterprise seems to occur to them less and less.  They demand we produce shows that "guarantee" something and I have seen a growth in demands for refunds for shows they do not like. 

Conversely, we cannot ignore these patrons because they are prone to punish us all, too, and I believe fully in their right to do that. But should we do everything traditionally? No, of course not and so we have a real problem as an industry because this is a burgeoning, powerful and numerous constituency. The modern right to outrage means that if we are to put on productions that can elevate and enlighten, we'll have to navigate a dizzying tapestry of moral criteria - the Twitter-world's prudish, often unthinking,  mob-morality that produces a million one-click activists. This prudishness is ironic since it has been accompanied by an even greater growth in prurience. We could of course just stop putting on ho-hum director masturbations too, which would help. But from adventure comes the best work we see on the stage, so I suspect the solution is a far more complex one than I can currently offer. Whatever is going on, we all need to get to grips with it.

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