Q. I am terribly upset about some people's deplorable conduct at the conclusion of a recent opera. Barely had the final curtain touched the stage, the opera stars not yet gone forward to take their bows, than throngs of what I consider extremely rude patrons started a fast exit up the aisles, supposedly to beat the crowds to the doors, parking lots or after-theater suppers.
My being able to rise and applaud the players on stage is as much a part of an enjoyable evening at the opera as the actual performance, but when six people push their way past me to make their exit, and a near-platoon is en route from the front rows, I personally am angered, and goodness knows what the performers must think seeing a sea of backs.
I cannot believe that this is proper conduct, but I am at a loss on how to either halt this exodus or appease my anger. Would you please help?
A. Well, actually, no. Miss Manners prefers to make things worse.
Courteous as it is of you to feel that your appreciation is as important a part of the evening as the opera itself, Miss Manners cannot believe that most opera lovers share your opinion that clapping must be accorded the same respect as music.
In fact, as a violent opera lover herself, Miss Manners (who just loves violent operas) endorses the lively school of audience reaction, rather than the genteel one that you represent. Uniformly respectful applause is the result of ritualizing the experience of attending an opera to the point that no real expression of opinion is permitted.
This codification is more prevalent when opera-going is treated as a tedious civic or social duty, than among people who find opera exciting. Miss Manners is far too shy to shout boo or bravo (with the proper endings, depending on gender and number of singers being addressed), but she recognizes that you cannot permit one without the other, and that both are sanctified by operatic tradition.
A less conspicuous method is to applaud when pleased and withhold applause when displeased, or to leave the theater when unable to applaud. If Miss Manners were an opera singer (and she has all the qualifications but voice), she would prefer the occasional excesses of enthusiasm, when ecstatic fans would pull her carriage through the streets, even if it also meant she would be subjected to occasional, obviously misguided disapproval, to hearing the same tepid politeness for her triumphs and her failures.
Miss Manners is not suggesting that your courtesy excludes judgment, but she would like to ask you what you do after a truly terrible opera. While she has sometimes sat enthralled through five-hour performances and stayed tapping her little hands until the last person has left the theater, she has also gone staggering out after an hour and a half that seemed a lifetime of torture.
In any case, the opera is over when the curtain comes down. It is not rude to leave the opera house then, and there may be many reasons for doing so, aside from terminal ennui. One may have a train to catch, a baby-sitter to let off duty, or a rendezvous backstage with the tenor.
For these reasons, you will never succeed in halting the exodus. But there is no reason you cannot stand and show your appreciation while others leave. If you are the only one remaining to do so, it will be even more appreciated.