Reinventing the audience

No, I am not reinventing,  I am the anthropologist busily observing, and seeking to articulate something that’s out there among the specimens.  Humanity –at least the western version thereof—are busily changing the social consensus.

Surely the changes have been underway for decades, like the movements of subterranean tectonic plates.  The young are flexible, mobile, active.  When they change they influence everyone, including their immobile elders, who—no matter how they may deny it—regularly imitate youth.  I’ve seen more upheaval in the past ten years than in the previous forty, but maybe it took a kind of critical mass for any of that to surface.  And then again when society is reinventing itself, the last place this manifests itself is in the concert halls & opera houses I frequent, performances where the average age is somewhere around 60.  If I don’t miss my guess, the consensus –itself an unspoken set of assumptions that were never really discussed—seems to be changing.

I made a list of remarkable moments, not in any special order.

  • Tapestry Briefs a few weeks ago offered a series of short operatic experiments.  The premise was a kind of theatrical speed-dating, where composers & librettists were mixed & matched, in search of theatrical gold.  Leaving aside the texts, in production several of these played with our understanding of the interface between audience & performance.  The most troubling moments were confrontational.  In one, a performer sang about her fertility in a narrow space resembling a birth canal, surrounded by uncomfortable auditors.  In another the singer dialogued with someone just stabbed by a machete (and yes it was really uncomfortable).
  • Bruce Barton’s YouTopia used a set resembling a jungle-gym both to enable aerial work and a kind of sculptural commentary on our civilization, while putting us in headphones for a layered soundtrack.
  • I was a guest at Figaro's Wedding

    I was a guest at Figaro’s Wedding

    Toronto Summer Music’s Minimalist Dream House Project dared to take its audience out of their comfort zone.

  • Einstein on the Beach (receiving its final performance just a few weeks ago in LA, after touring around North America the past couple of years) encouraged us to go in and out as we pleased.
  • Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven Marathon created a happening out of a concert, reinventing (at least temporarily) the role of the virtuoso along the way.
  • Sasha Lukac’s production of Move(me)ant. The Marat/Sade Occupied at York University in 2012 incorporated social media.
  • Figaro’s Wedding by Against the Grain Theatre, in a Queen West space, was the highlight of the early summer.  For much of the evening we could have been at an actual wedding.  I shared a picture of myself taken during an intermission next to a wedding cake on Facebook.

There are really several audiences of course.  You don’t see the same behaviour at bars as at theatres or concert halls, and again, it depends whether you’re listening to ear-splitting rock, jazz, or classical.  As a super-vocal loudmouth I am regularly at a loss to know how to behave when I change milieu.  Friday night’s concert at Gallery 345 was in the land of clapping and the occasional bravo, whereas yesterday’s play in Tarragon’s Extraspace was in the land of the woot-ers, a curious species of enthusiastic creature who aren’t really very loud –I can’t woot 1/10th as loud as I can bravo—but well-meant.  Of course when the woots morph into screams –and yes I mean my own—we can be much louder.  Pardon me if this sounds critical, but all I’m getting at is that each group seems to have restrictions and unspoken boundaries they don’t transgress.  In some places –for instance in the jazz world—you clap immediately when you love something, no matter what’s happening.  The last parts of solos are often drowned out by raucous applause.

I wonder, then, is the movement of those tectonic plates I spoke of partly because of the intersection of strata?  There are age strata of course, where the old meet the middle aged meet the recently young meet the young, or the cultural strata, where woots meet bravi meet screams or other sorts of cheers.

Okay, let’s stop this discussion for a moment.  You probably think that the good old days are gone now, the time when nobody would dream of texting during a film or a play because those devices hadn’t been invented.

But no, I actually long for a return to a golden age of a different sort.  I long for a time much more remote from our own.  Nevermind those quiet audiences.

At the premiere of Hector Berlioz’s Harolde en Italie, a wonderful concerto for viola with a program based on Byron’s poem, the audience asked for encores of the middle movements.  I love it so much, why wouldn’t they want to hear it again? We play tracks on our CDs over, why not in a concert?

We live in a funny time, when we’re told that there’s no applause between movements of symphonies.  The concert I was at Friday night, Ernesto Ramirez sang a series of Mexican songs that by usual practice call for applause at the end of the group.  My hands kept wanting to applaud, partly because he was so good, partly because it’s simply un-natural to hold our applause the way we are always told to do.  At a few points in this concert, attended by at least a few family members, applause erupted in the middle of groups of songs, and protocol be damned.

We have much to unlearn.  While mobile phones are spoken of as a curse, I am loving this dogfight between the rules for repressing human impulses, and those unquenchable impulses.

Adam Paolozza and Viktor Lukawski in The Double (photo by Lacey Creighton)

Adam Paolozza and Viktor Lukawski in The Double (photo by Lacey Creighton)

I close with a quote from Viktor Lukawski, whose words in the talkback for The Double and afterwards in conversation largely stimulated me to write all this.  Speaking about the contrary human impulses we observe in a theatre, we were discussing the different responses humans make in different places, the respectful crowd that in some places resembles a church congregation afraid to let loose, and the inter-generational thing I alluded to.  In fact this whole essay is really just expanding on what he said so succinctly.

We’re trying to fight against the “church congregation”. Hopefully, by doing this kind of work, and the cabaret-style itself, allows people to relax those stiff shoulders. The idea is to make it feel like you’re watching a concert, rather than some period piece. … Maybe then the inner wild high-schooler might have come out in the older audience! 

We shall see.  And hear.

This entry was posted in Personal ruminations & essays, Popular music & culture, Psychology and perception. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Reinventing the audience

  1. I’d be really surprised if the average age at the concerts, operas etc I go to is as low as sixty. As I look around I see far more people who are obviously older than myself and I’m 56. It gets worse. My experience after the HD of The Nose was typical. I was talking to a lady at the streetcar stop and she expressed the view that music like Shostakovich was for “young people like yourself”.
    Audience behaviour though is a very odd thing. I’d love to trace the origins of the mandatory Toronto 30% standing ovation.

    • barczablog says:

      Ah yes, i didn’t talk about that standing O that purports to be generous, even as the coat is on and the feet shuffling for the exit, preventing others from continuing their ovation.

      It’s true, the average age for opera (especially High Definition broadcasts) is often well above 60. I love that quote from your streetcar pal.

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