Still, the festival, which runs through Sunday and celebrates its centennial season, is approaching the pandemic crisis with a balance of respect and resolve, deference and defiance, caution and passion. It’s an energy that carries over into the performances available to registered users of the online classical performance hub Medici.tv.
But as a listener, despite the abundance of top-tier talent and the variety of the program, the most thrilling thing I heard “at” Salzburg wasn’t the music. It actually happened between the acts of Joana Mallwitz and Christof Loy’s spare and unsparing “Così fan tutte,” at the end of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s intense “Elektra,” and tucked between the sonatas at Martha Argerich and Renaud Capuçon’s recital of Beethoven, Franck and Prokofiev (plus Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebesleid”). Like a sudden and refreshing summer storm overwhelming my headphones, it was the applause.
It was as though the orchestra pit had suddenly expanded to include the whole of the audience, however diminished. The sound radiated and rose, surged and spread — it felt instrumental, a conductible energy summoned by the hands of strangers in the dark and out of frame. It felt celebratory, infectious, unfair.
For the past several months, I’ve really only heard applause in small, sporadic outbreaks, and it’s only hitting me lately how much I miss the stuff.
My fellow passengers burst into it in February, when my Texas-to-D.C. flight safely landed after an especially bumpy ride (widespread relief shared in part because also aboard was Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who died last month). Months later, fits of applause echoed down the corridor of our block when protests over police brutality sprung up at Dupont Circle. And at home through the quarantine, we’ve had no shortage of the canned stuff, as we nightly join long-adjourned live studio audiences for bedtime marathons of “The Golden Girls.”
And now we have Major League Baseball, where the piped-in synthetic applause from enthusiastic ghost crowds has given confounded viewers the willies — or at least struck some as “intellectually dishonest.”
Applause — be it real or triggered from a bank of 72 sounds on an iPad, as the Nats do — is an essential element of the psychological texture of the game. The roar of an artificial crowd may not be the real thing, but it’s hard to imagine the game (or tune out the opposing dugout) without it. Think of it as sonic AstroTurf.
At the recent Democratic National Convention, you could still hear the absence of applause in the contours of certain speeches, where natural rhetorical gaps gave way to bluffs of expectant silence. And at the Republican National Convention, erstwhile Fox personality Kimberly Guilfoyle seemed to compensate for the lack of applause by simply imagining it in her head and shouting over it into the void of the empty Mellon Auditorium.
Usually, these grand political conventions feature enough superfluous applause to make the State of the Union sound like Wimbledon; but the crisis forced speakers at both virtual events into more intimate soliloquies.
Which isn’t to say producers didn’t find ways to siphon in applause — or simulate it entirely. One segment of the Democratic convention featured now-vintage-feeling footage of President Obama springing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on a dumbstruck Joe Biden on their way out of the White House in 2017. The surprise bestowal drew a wave of roaring applause that Obama struggled to quell, and that the rest of the convention struggled to match. Still, the mere sound of people agreeing on something was enough to give me a dissociated chill.
The Democratic convention also flanked its key speakers with screens featuring massive Zoom-esque grids of at-home applauders, with individual clappers given a rotation of screen time after Biden’s acceptance speech. The choppy audio of this virtual cheering section made it feel oddly of the moment, and not just because we spend so much time muting and unmuting to speak to each other. Something about the blend of consensus and compromise made the cobbled approximation of applause oddly touching. But it still lacked so much of what applause is there to reinforce: presence, connection, unity.
It feels permissible, perhaps even necessary, for manufactured applause to accompany the televised action of sports and politics (lest anyone revisit the fate met by Jeb “Please clap” Bush). But this loss of applause in our public life, and our current lack of anything to applaud in the arts, feels worse than some awkward silence writ large; it feels like we’ve all been muted.
So reflexive is applause, it can be easy to forget how powerful it is, what makes it important enough to fake. When it occurs naturally, it feels pure and profound. When it’s contrived or controlled, it feels like a deception.
In 1961, a New York Times reader wrote a letter to chronicle his hushing a fellow audience member at the Met for breaking tradition and applauding after acts of “Parsifal,” the hushee retorted: “Wagner isn’t around anymore. Why don’t you live in the 20th century?” The letter-writer’s belated zing was to the effect of “Why not have Parsifal shoot the swan with a rifle instead of a bow and arrow?” but I like the hushee’s point better: Applause is how we speak back to the composer, the actor, the acrobat and the politician (who is a little of each) in the moment. It’s also how we speak to each other as strangers, how we coalesce as a crowd, how we lend definition to our togetherness.
Emergent drive-in culture has given rise to car horns colloquially replacing clapping during the pandemic — which is fine, but seems more fitting for afternoon traffic than artistic triumph. It’s not for nothing that you can find hours-long stretches of ambient applause on YouTube. It’s a sound that makes us feel good.
There’s something sacred about this noise we sometimes make together with our bare hands — its vast percussive mass blurring into a shimmering affirmative blast. Applause is a marvel of atonal expressiveness. A spontaneous projection of unity. And much like the art it responds to, we are worse off without it; it’s one of those things we do to make us less afraid of each other.