A few weeks ago I attended the final performance of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Overall, it was a wonderful, if at times difficult and sluggish production, lifted by a second act that was magnificently performed and hauntingly scored. The opera’s final moments were its best. Without boring you with too many details, I’ll just say that by the end there is a plot twist, a sudden death, and a single soprano left on stage, clutching the fresh corpse of a 10-year-old boy, singing a prolonged, grief-ridden aria.
Britten’s music here demonstrates a mastery of understatement, and unlike the bombast we typically associate with operatic finales, the subtle and supple orchestration of the opera’s final measures bring the great British composer’s piece to a close with the breathy resonance of a gut-wrenching gasp. To place a period on this moment, the director of the Dallas Opera’s production, Francesca Gilpin, has the curtain fall to the stage so that its shimmering plummet is perfectly timed with the last fading notes of Britten’s glorious score.
And that’s when it happened: taking a cue from the falling curtain (rather than being sensitive to what was happening with the music), a single, idiotic, presumably half-drowsy audience member started to clap right through the soprano’s final notes. The audience member quickly realized his mistake and stopped, but the damage had already been done. The clapper inspired a scuttlebutt of echoes – other audience members conjured from their waking trance to participate in the communal ritual of skin slapping that, to some regular opera goers, translates as “Thank God this thing is over, get me out of here.”
The opera still worked. The moment was still powerful. But it was difficult to leave the theater not feeling like something beautiful had been ruined by a single, silly audience member.
We’ve been here before. Kvetching about the etiquette – or lack thereof – of Dallas classical music audiences is something of a perennial sport for the dwindling members of Dallas’ critical establishment. D Magazine once published an article by Willard Spiegelman that criticized this city’s provincial penchant for over-ebullience. The Dallas Morning News’ Scott Cantrell has scolded his readers for various forms of misguided enthusiasm. We’ve even published some backlash, as when Catherine Womack equated this brand of this finger-wagging with a white male music lovers’ unfortunate tendency towards mansplaining and cultural elitism — and found herself subsequently scolded back.
However, in a conversation after my Britten disappointment with a former member of the Dallas Opera Chorus-turned-U.T. Southwestern Medical School professor, I was pointed to a YouTube clip that contains what is perhaps the single most defining moment of audience rebuking Dallas has ever witnessed.
Let’s set the scene. The year is 1975, and the Dallas Civic Opera has invited the late-great heldentenor Jon Vickers to sing the part of Tristan in a production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Music Hall at Fair Park. As Vickers sings the final line of a passage, the orchestra comes to a delicate rest. Even in the scratchy soundtrack on the clip, you can hear how Vickers’ performance has managed to suck the air out of the room. The hall is silent, but for a single audience member who has suddenly been possessed by a coughing fit.
We’ve all been there – the awkward and unfortunate classical concert cough, the mysterious congestion that always seems to well-up at inopportune moments like some allergic reaction to the awkward stillness of the concert hall. Sometimes audience members recuse themselves, or cough into handkerchiefs or suit jacket arms to muffle the effect. Most performers accept the distractions as part of the job and move on. But in this particular performance, for some reason, the audience member makes little effort to dampen the interruption, and Vickers was having none of it.
What happens next is a point of contention in the comments to the YouTube video. Is it the sound of a tempestuous diva showing demonstrable and demeaning disdain for his own audience? Or, is it the outburst of an artist pushed to the edge of frustration by the passive contempt implied by the rude throat-hacking of the man with the cough? I’ll let you decide. But you must watch the clip below and wait for Vickers to bellow his famous line — a line, or some variation of which, was surely ringing in the ears of many members of the audience at the Dallas Opera’s Britten when the final bars were interrupted by that overeager, wayward clapper:
“Shut up with your damn coughing!”