THE LOUDEST, longest and most furious booing in modern Metropolitan Opera history greeted the opening of Verdi's "Macbeth" just before Thanksgiving.
Even that, one critic said, "could not begin to reflect audience unhappiness over one of the most tateless, vulgar and dramatically ill-conceived operas ever to be mounted."
Hardly a month earlier, replacement tenor Carlo Bini was all but laughed off the stage in Ponchielli's "La Gioconda," and there were fist fights if the balcony. The man was booed every time he opened his mouth, and by the third act the conductor took sick and had to be carried off.
Last year, the Met opening-night audience gave the business to soprano Renata Scotto as Bellini's "Norma." Some said the booing was organized by a claque of Maria Callas fans. But others said Scotto was just plain terrible.
What is happening to the American opera audience, the worlds most famous pussycat?
And what does James Levine, the prodigious maestro of the Met, think about the booing?
"This is nothing new," he says. "It's been going on for years. You get more audience participation in big music. You get more response from Beethoven's Ninth than from a chamber work. And opera involves more response than any of them. In fact, it is composed with that in mind: It allows for applause between numbers. In the 18th and up to the late 19th centuries composers would write in full stops in the action.
"Whether this response is positive or negative isn't the point. It's as old as the art form. Part of the scene. Once Toscanini was doing 'Pelleas' and the audience was making so much noise the orchestra and the singers couldn't hear each other until halfway through the second scene."
He has heard every conceivable kind of reaction, he says, from total hate to total ecstasy.
"Booing is not a collective response, and it's a grave mistake to think it is. Each individual expresses himself differently. Some shout, some clap hard, some don't clap at all, some whistle in America a compliment; in Europe, a deadly insult, some begin applause before the song is over, some stand up and wave. You can't analyze this. It's too inarticulate. It could be spontaneous, or it could be deliberate sabotage by a claque."
About those horrific recent performances:
"Premieres draw a special audience. The 'Norma' thing happened on opening night. None of the other performances were disturbed at all. The same with 'Macbeth.' Opening-night audiences want their critical views to be a subject of discussion. In any case, there's just no correlation between the reaction and whether a work is good or bad. Some great operas have been booed and some mediocre ones cheered."
As for himself, he's usually much too busy to pay attention to audience demonstrations. "If I heard it through 20 'Macbeths,' it might make a difference, but it doesn't happen that way."
There had been celebrated instances of booing at the Met long before "Norma," of course. In 1968 the "Caro Nome" of soprano Gianna D'Angelo in "Rigoletto" so outraged an audience that it drove her from the stage with boos and shrieks.
IT'S NOT only operas, either. Back in the '60s, feminists started a tradition of hissing the odd sexist remark in lectures and films. It still happens now and then, though enough lecturers have had their consciousness raised that you hear it today mostly at old movies whose outdated ways are preserved in celluloid.
Theater booing is usually political. There was a bit of this in the early Vietnam years, and one recalls a 1967 performance in London of a somewhat naive and patronizing antiwar play called "US" that sent one gray-haired executive storming up the aisle shouting, "This is ridiculous!" It was impossible to tell if his accent was British or American.
But political booing is another story. Our concern here is with the music or drama fan for whom silence in a storm of applause, remaining seated while everyone else excitedly stands up, is not enough. Why is there so little of it in the theater compared to the opera? Is it that opera's element of fantasy unchains the roaring, or anyway self-dramatizing, beast in us? Or is it that audiences have heard the arias so many times that they take a clunky performance as a personal insult?
"I've only been in one theater in my entire life where there was booing," says theater mogul Roger Stevens. "It was in London in the early '60s. I forget the name of the play, but I was sitting with the producer and it was rather embarrassing.
"I inquired afterwards and found out that at that time there was a claque that used to go to opening nights, sit up in the second balcony and make their feelings known. I don't ever recall it happening in this country. It seems a terrible thing to do--to the actors, the playwright, the director. I can't say that I find it a very constructive practice. The way you handle it here is that you simply tell your friends to stay away from that play."
If theater booing is aimed at the playwright's politics, booing at pop concerts is usually aimed at the unfamiliar. Opening acts bear the brunt of abuse simply because the audience wants them to abandon the stage to the stars who drew the crowd. And any kind of new music--from John Coltrane's jazz excursions to Rhys Chatam's guitar frenzies--tends to be rejected loudly until it gets familiar enough to be overlooked, and accepted.
Classical concert booing is aimed at the composer's esthetics. It is about artistic controversy. One of Washington's most famous musical booing incidents was at a 1969 concert in Constitution Hall, and it lasted five minutes. That is a long time to boo, if you think about it. It can make you see spots.
Erich Leinsdorf had just conducted the Boston Symphony in Edgar Varese's "Deserts," never before heard in this town. Varese, whose work always seemed to make some people mad and probably always will, had written the piece 15 years earlier at age 70 for orchestra and electronic tapes.
Leinsdorf stood at center stage, buffeted by alternate waves of boos and bravos in a hurricane of noise. It went on and on, the balance shifting from pro to con and back. Finally he raised his arms and the tumult died. ("He had done his best, and it was a stupendous best," commented critic Paul Hume, "to drag that audience, kicking, screaming, talking, snickering and picking its nose, into the musical arena of its own day.")
Leinsdorf smiled icily. "We are delighted," he said, "to learn that in Washington not only politics is controversial."
Whereupon the uproar started all over again.
Whereupon Leinsdorf turned on his heel, faced the orchestra . . . and played the thing a second time.
Mostly, booing is a minority affair. In 1957 an audience of 1,500 heard the premiere of Aaron Copland's difficult Piano Fantasy in the Juilliard Hall in New York. William Masselos played the work, which is not at all in Copland's better-known popular Americana, or "Appalachian Spring," vein.
The distinguished audience, come to pay homage to the dean of American composers, applauded mightily, rising to its feet as Copland himself was led onstage to take a bow.
Suddenly, from the balcony, came a shocking Bronx cheer, a tremendous sound that went on forever, paralyzing everyone there. "It was like someone threw a stink bomb," a critic remarked.
Copland, reached at his upstate New York home recently, said he couldn't remember just what he thought at the time. "But you learn to expect any kind of reaction on things like this. I've had both extremes."
He noted that booing seemed particularly angry and sour in America, while in France and some other European countries "everyone really has a great time: The audience makes its point and gets itself involved in the music and the pleasure of expressing itself. And the composer gets to nod wisely at them and mutter, 'They'll see. Just give them time. Just wait.' "
In music, he said, it's the new work that drives audiences to verbal violence. In opera, on the other hand, the repertoire is so conventional and so familiar that one concentrates on the performers.
(None of these theories quite covers the time Bob Dylan got booed at Newport for switching to an electric guitar. Presumably they were mad at the instrument itself.)
Occasionally, the kind of mishap occurs that sends an audience into stitches rather than frenzies. One recalls an up-country "Aida" at the Stanley Theater in Utica, N.Y., which paraded its small cast around the stage single-file in the Grand March. There was a warped board at center front, and one after another the spear carriers tripped over it: the same lurch, the same wild waving of spear and shield to recover, the same backward glance. They could have rehearsed it for weeks and not done it more perfectly. By the time the 16th person in a row had tripped, the audience was hilariously shouting "Ole'" every time. It was a wonderful "Aida." I forget how it came out.
DANCERS SAY Americans don't boo much, though Europeans do. "Americans tend to giggle nervously if they don't understand a dance," says the great modern dancer Merce Cunningham, who in his long association with avant-garde composer John Cage has known about every kind of adverse reaction there is. "Europeans demonstrate much more. Italians will start whistling. I think Americans--up to now, anyway--are uncomfortable in a theater. It's Culture, and we're so respectful. But we are at home in the movies, all right. And vaudeville: It was entertainment, a people's art."
One time his troupe was in Cologne doing a work called "Canfield," which uses live sound tapes as part of the accompaniment. The audience booed, so the boos turned up on the tape--and the company duly danced to that sound, too.
"Those people were quite surprised," he chuckles.
In general he approves of strong audience reactions. On a recent long tour of France, he says, audiences were so polite and quiet that he had to peek around the curtain from backstage to see if they were still there.
Booing may be something of a fad in America, but the La Scala audience in Milan has been booing singers for centuries. It is in a class by itself. Five years ago at the bicentennial celebration of the house, marked with a performance of Verdi's "Don Carlo," the audience attacked not the singers, not the song, but minor details of the production itself, shouting "Stupido!" at producer Luca Ronconi.
And how does booing feel from the other side of the stage?
Take the case of Carlo Bini. Before "La Gioconda" opened, the management announced that the scheduled tenor, Placido Domingo, would sing even though he was ill. He just made it through the first act.
Bini, who was sitting in the audience studying the opera so he could sing the part the following week, was called backstage, hurriedly made up and stuffed into an unfamiliar costume. He had had two stage rehearsals but no musical rehearsals. He was given no time to warm up but was sent out for Act II on a smile and a shoeshine.
The booing started immediately. Every note he sang brought cascades of boos. The mezzo-soprano was so afraid he would bolt off the stage that she held his hands.
At last the conductor stopped the show and told the audience to have some respect for the composer at least, "and if you don't like it, don't clap."
Later, thoroughly disoriented, Bini missed an entrance and the music stopped again. And at the end of the third act the conductor had to be removed feet first, suffering from fluctuating blood pressure and impaired vision.
Afterward, Bini seemed philosophical about it. "I feel I'm a little bit unhappy," he told interviewers in charming Italian/English, "but I love the Met and American audiences. We say in Italy, time cures all things." He admitted he had been hurt by the booing of "a tiny minority," since after all he had only done it so the show could go on, and he had done his best, and it wasn't worth the uproar. "Everything is making a big casserole," he said.
Anyway, it appears that booing is socially acceptable in America today. Maybe it has something to do with the self-fulfillment craze. Maybe it is related to Primal Scream therapy. Maybe it is the prices. If you had paid $65 for a box seat to see a famous star like Domingo and had to settle for Bini in his ad hoc costume, wouldn't you boo?
Or it could be that the professional baseball and football audience has started going to the opera. It is well known that this audience invaded the pop music scene with that watershed event of American culture, Woodstock.
If this is so, opera is in for another shock: the chanting of an artist's name, inherited from baseball's "Reg-gie! Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" Go to a Bruce Springsteen concert, and you think the audience is booing him throughout the evening. Not at all. They're shouting "Bruce! Bruce! Bruce!"
Can't you hear the glittering dowagers at the Met screaming in unison: "Pava-Rotti! Pava-Rotti!"
On second thought, booing is better.