Distracted Listening

Noise levels astonished diarists from abroad, nobility arrived with servants who cooked whole meals, talked, played [at cards], and relieved themselves in the antechambers that stood in back of each lavish box.  (II, 174)

It would be natural to assume that the scenario above refers to a sporting event. One can picture a gaggle of the privileged gossiping away about which noblewoman is in bed with which nobleman, noshing on treats, sharing the latest dirty joke, sipping wine and laughing. It’s like a baseball game today: you go for the camaraderie over hot dogs and beer and when you hear a sharp “crack,” you look down onto the field to see what just happened. It’s all about the socializing; the ostensible reason for the event is secondary.

Of course, there was no baseball in 17th/18th century Italy; instead, the landed classes amused themselves in the opera house. The passage above comes from Martha Feldman’s article “Magic Mirrors and the Seria Stage,” which meticulously describes the fascinating social milieu that existed around opera seria performances in the early 18th century. The performance halls were fully lit, giving spectators just as good a view of the other spectators than of the stage. People came to see and be seen, to chat amongst themselves, and to eat. (Indeed, a standard item in the seria opera was the “sherbet aria,” a tune sung while audience members devoured their dessert.) The music was entirely incidental to the partying, which makes sense when one learns that patrons typically rented their opera boxes for the whole season, and a season consisted of only a few operas, each performed 20-30 times. After the first couple of performances, audiences would be familiar enough with the plot and the music to mentally check out and still know what’s going on. When the virtuoso castrato onstage begin belting his signature tune, audiences would stop their conversations to enjoy a moment of music.

Taruskin comments that there is nothing in today’s world of classical music similar to this sort of socio-musical event. (One would have to go to a bar with a bad cover band for something resembling the opera seria culture.) Indeed, he likens it more to today’s TV set, which passively lights up the background to so many peoples’ lives (II, 175). It is used less for concentrated recreation than it is for distracted ambiance. To the modern person, steeped as we are in the 19th century idea of darkened concert halls, sublimity and transport, and the private contemplation of musical art, the opera seria can seem more like circus than Kultur. The carnivalesque element is perhaps what makes seria such a marginal player in today’s repertory, but it also makes it queerly fascinating.

Prof. Mitchell Morris likes to tell his undergrads that one reason why the 20th century has so few fantastic operas is that, to write an opera that truly “works,” the composer has to “have the courage to be boring.” When you’re dealing with a musical form that can easily stretch for 3 or more hours, a composer needs to “let the audience go,” to free them up for staring blankly at the ceiling, checking their iPhones, and people watching. One does not have the cognitive capacity to deal with hours straight of concentrated brilliance; they need some mental downtime. In the 20th century, only the courageous composer has the guts to be boring.

It might be easy to forget this today, but distracted listening has a long and distinguished history in the western art music tradition (not to mention all the rest of human musical cultures out there). You could receive a dirty look for coughing in some esteemed concert halls today, but throughout most of music history, the coughing, distracted, socializing audience member was the norm, not the decorum-destroying exception. This is perhaps what makes opera seria so interesting – it is so utterly different from what we think of opera now. Taruskin lowers the curtain: “.. it is just those aspects of bygone art that are most bygone from which we can learn the most about ourselves and our present world, and the place of art within it” (II, 176).



  1. Herb Roselle says:

    I’ve performed in Italy with a couple of different ensembles, one jazz and the other concert, and was warned that the Italian “piazza audience” would not listen, but rather, regard the performance as a social setting. We’ve found it to be otherwise (mostly), but I’m wondering if that supposed norm isn’t a carryover from the opera serie days. Is it unique to Italy? My only other experience is in the US and Britain, where audiences are usually quite attentive.

    Just found out about this – thank you!!

  2. Mark Samples says:

    Whenever I approach the study of an opera from the 17th or 18th centuries, I try to visualize one of the many nights I performed in bars and restaurants in San Diego. The sets my band would play in these situations (with equal parts listeners, distracted diners, and even some drug-induced-psychedelic-hop-onto-the-stage-impromptu dancers) versus the ones we played at concerts where people came specifically to hear us were quite different. It’s the power of esthesics. And even at the concerts where people came to hear us, they would mill about, talk amongst themselves, or shout out during the performance.

    I stop well short of calling the opera seria performance the rock concert of the 18th century, but comparing the two can profitably jar us from grafting our current notion of the opera audience onto the past, where the typical scene was quite different.

  3. Margaret says:

    This has always amused me about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: in the back of each program book they attempt to answer common questions (online, too, at http://www.cso.org/main.taf?p=5,1) about concert etiquette and one of the questions is “What if I have to cough?” Here is their non-answer:

    “In an effort to help reduce distracting noises and enhance the concert-going experience, the Walgreen Corporation provides complimentary cough suppressant tablets to patrons attending all concerts. Cough drop dispensers, subject to availability, are located throughout Orchestra Hall.”

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      HAHAHA! Unbelievable.

      Alex Ross posted a great little piece on the conventions of clapping at a concert at the link below. My favorite anecdote: at a performance of Parsifal, Wagner got up and shouted “bravo!” after the flower maidens scene, at which point he was promptly hissed at. Something is odd indeed when the composer himself can’t even make some spontaneous noise in response to his music…

      Here’s the post: http://www.therestisnoise.com/2005/02/applause_a_rest.html

  4. Ron Davis says:

    Fantastic post. Funny, since in all other formats of music, distracted listening is the norm, whether in a club, a stadium, or a restaurant.

    Recently, I did a solo jazz piano concert in the classical recital hall in Dalien, China. Cell phones were on, but discreetly and very quietly answered after one ring. I was the one who was distracted!

  5. I suppose it’s no different today when you go to the movies;
    people can’t stand to have some one moving around,talking,making noise etc. They call the usher if this happens.
    Why should it be any different at concerts today?
    People want to concentrate on the music, particularly if it’s something unfamiliar .
    It’s no use to try to recreate the way audiences behave in the past at concerts or opera. Critics such as Greg Sandow are always using reports of the way audiences behaved in the past as an excuse to criticize classical music in the present day. But this is not fair at all.

    1. Zach Wallmark says:

      I agree that, conditioned the way we are today, trying to recapture the past would be ridiculous. As you say, who would want people chatting and eating over the music? (For that, go to a jazz club!) However, I think this question really reveals the fact that listening itself is a historically and culturally conditioned act. The concert-going public today is still operating on the Romantic philosophy of contemplative listening, the detached reception of sublime, transcendent art. Leaving the lights on and selling hot dogs in the concert hall isn’t going to change this listening paradigm. I think it’s safe to say that music performed an ancillary function back then, providing background for social entertainment. Today, music is the main event at a concert. Neither is better or worse than the other. But it’s fascinating to see how much our listening has changed.

  6. Brenda Large says:

    Mr. Wallmark put the conditions of the past and present most diplomatically in his March 14 comment.

    I wonder as a postscript if the audiences of long ago, being the monied classes, saw nothing wrong with carrying on in any way they liked, whereas today, getting to see an opera is, most of the time expensive and a rare experience for many.

    However when The Metropolitan Opera comes to our local cinema, we do bring our own excellent sandwiches, fruit and muffins for the intermissions. We turn up our noses at members of the audience inhaling popcorn and soft drinks.

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