Classical Music

I’ve booed at the opera before. But what happened to a young soprano this week was plain cruel | Martin Kettle

There is nothing wrong in principle with protesting at the opera. I’ve very occasionally booed shows I hated, and I want to be free to do so again if I choose. Not everything on the opera, or any other stage, has always got to be cheered politely or given the reflexive standing ovations that seem ever more common. Booing and whistling at the opera or theatre can sometimes be healthy and necessary protest. It is actually a lot more common than you may think, especially on first nights, especially in continental Europe. I once even heard Luciano Pavarotti, no less, booed at La Scala in Milan.

What happened at Covent Garden on Tuesday evening, however, wasn’t booing but heckling. It was repeated and mean-spirited barracking during a touching and plaintive aria about the loss of a father. Most disturbingly of all, it was the heckling of a child. It took place during act one of Handel’s opera Alcina, to a boy character, Oberto. Covent Garden’s production gives Oberto a prominent and poignant prominence. The target was Malakai M Bayoh, a 12-year-old boy soprano who is alternating the role with another young singer during the six performances scheduled by the Royal Opera this month.

The heckling of Bayoh took place several times. From where I was sitting, the words used were indistinct. But the interruption was shocking and unwarranted. It was also unconscionably cruel, given Bayoh’s age. But this thoroughly reprehensible action was the work of one isolated man. It was not echoed at all elsewhere in the theatre. The vigorous shushing from those nearby and the loud cheering and prolonged applause from every other person which drowned it out when the aria ended gave a true and unambiguous voice to the views of the rest of the opera audience. When Bayoh took his bow at the end, he was again loudly cheered. Everyone there was rightly on his side.

So don’t read about this incident and draw the false conclusion that this was typical opera-going behaviour. It wasn’t. It was the reverse. I’d add for the record that, as far as I could tell, the heckling was not racist (Bayoh is a black boy from south London), although it may have been. My guess is that the heckler was indignant that Oberto was being sung by a boy soprano not an adult female one with a more finished voice. But I could be wrong and I stand to be corrected.

The heckler later apparently left the theatre and has now been banned from Covent Garden for life. I’m not sure about the wisdom of that. He was unquestionably very wrong to heckle Bayoh. It was right that he left. But there is a wider issue to consider here. Expressing one’s dissent against a production or a performance is often unattractive and sometimes (as here) unmerited. But it can have its place. Not always, but sometimes. It’s a tricky line to draw and to police. But I hope theatres do not start making it a requirement of attendance not to boo or protest, let alone make booing punishable by a lifetime ban.

Two days on, however, my operatic frustration is about something quite different. The heckling of Bayoh has received lots of coverage (including this piece from me). I understand why that is. But is this story really as important as the much more consequential decision of Arts Council England last week to stop funding the English National Opera at all if it will not move out of London? I hardly think so. That’s a cut that will affect scores of lives and reshape the shared cultural landscape for the worse, not least for Bayoh’s generation of young talent. That deserves to be interrupted with a lot more than a heckle.

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