Survey of Arts Management

Course blog for American University PERF-570, Fall 2014

Are opera audiences too casual?

In this article, the author Fred Plotkin discusses the cultural distinctions between American and Italian Opera goers. Plotkin describes what happened when he used social media to explore the culture that revolves around the opera. The differences in how Americans and Italians consume opera is very interesting!

At the Italian opera La Scala, audiences are inclined to dress in their most formal of formal wear. Further, many members of the audience are considered loggionisti, or as the article says “those opinionated, self-appointed arbiters of quality and taste—are allowed to behave badly during performances (as opposed to during curtain calls, when many people express their opinions audibly)”.

In the American opera scene, people dress up, but they aren’t necessarily required to wear their tuxedos and ball gowns. Also, Americans tend to be much more reserved during performances, generally waiting until the end of an act to applause/boo (I do no think that many Americans WOULD boo… we are too polite in this way. What do you guys think?).

Being American, I feel biased in my opinion of the Italian vs American way of consuming opera. I think that quiet and casual is just fine! As a classical musician, I do not think it is a huge deal for audiences to dress to impress… we cannot see them from the stage anyway! Also, I would HATE it if someone booed while I was playing. That would be quite the blow to the ego.

However, I have to give Italian opera goers the benefit of the doubt, as their behaviors are based on old traditions. Italy was where the first operas were composed and performed, all the way back in the late 16th century! For today’s Italian opera goers, they are just following along with what tradition tells them to do. For example, dressing ALL the way up for to attend the opera is a tradition that dates back to the when opera began. Attending the opera during 17th and 18th centuries was much less about the music than it was about being seen by OTHER opera goers. And you had to look your best. Status was everything! Today, while it is clear that Italian opera goers are more interested in the music (all of those loggionisti), the tradition of dressing up still remains.

From the article I see a clear dichotomy in how Americans and Italians consume opera. Americans are casual and calm. Italians are fancy and flamboyant. I am curious to see what you guess think about the differences: do you guys think one way is more appropriate for consuming opera than the other? Does it even matter?

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4 comments on “Are opera audiences too casual?

  1. awellfare89
    October 1, 2014

    I think a lot of this has to do with accepted social behaviors in each country. The Italians are a passionate bunch that, as you said, are rooted in tradition when it comes to opera. With how flippant Americans can be, I am actually surprised as well at our reverence during classical music performances. I wonder if much of this comes from the fact that because American culture is so young, we still see this form of the arts as unreachable and foreign. Our contemporary works come at a time in history where casualty is the norm and this is also a means of how to attract a wider audience – especially those young’uns!

    • evanjsanderson
      October 2, 2014

      Very interesting article, Jared! I studied theater abroad in Italy for a semester during undergrad, and I found it the height of oddity that audiences boo villains or an unfortunate turn of events. The culture and mindset around attending and experiencing the theater is incredibly different – particularly around ‘Italian’ art forms like commedia (which I studied) or opera. I think the difference in dressing styles may come done to a distinction that is not discussed as often: Italians go to the opera to exceed the experience of the normal, to go out side of the everyday. And so, they dress to reflect that. Americans often go to the opera (or theater) to not to exceed the everyday, but to see it reflected and refracted on stage. We want to feel the music, have it affect us personally and individually. Italians are more interested in the collective experience – seeing and being seen, and the elevation of the community through art.

      What do you think?

  2. torisharbaugh
    October 3, 2014

    I definitely agree that the way opera audiences (or any audiences for that matter) react and engage in a performance is culturally-rooted. For Italy, the birthplace of opera, the genre of music is embedded in their society; it’s part of their cultural heritage. However, for Americans, opera is foreign and it makes it harder for them to relate. It is inevitable that audiences are going to react differently, and that doesn’t mean one is more acceptable than the other.

    I have looked a lot at the question about consumption of opera from the Austrian vs American point of view. Now comparing these two cultures with Italy, I can reaffirm that every single culture is going to consume opera differently. In Austria, especially Vienna, classical music (as a whole) is part of their lifestyle. Vienna was known as the place where classical composers really took their careers to the next level. At young ages, composers traveled to Vienna to give their careers a jump start and gain superior notoriety. Still today, Austrians understand that classical music helps define their cultural identity.

    This is why I think there is a bigger question to answer than different ways of consumption: How does each culture appreciate opera? Even though Italians and Austrians react differently to opera (Austrians are quiet and reserved, much like the Americans), there is a higher level of appreciation. Appreciation does not necessarily mean you have to enjoy the art form, you just recognize it as a significant part of your cultural history.

    I think this is where opera runs into trouble in America. It is not the art form itself or how organizations deliver that art form, but how audiences appreciate that art form (which, for America, is very minimal). As a country, we do not recognize opera as part of our culture and, therefore, associate it as foreign and irrelevant. It would love to see music organizations (not necessarily opera companies, but organizations that have more power with advocacy) focus on Americans opera composers and their contribution to the art form. Playing the classic operas like “La Boheme” and “Carmen” are great and current audiences adore them. However, I think attracting a new American audience will require emphasis on opera in American culture. Maybe looking at the large amounts of classical music in film, since film has a huge influence on American culture?

  3. alexgilbertschrag
    October 3, 2014

    What an interesting read. What I find fascinating is how classical performances have moved in the direction of maintaining this type of outward appearance. When Classical concerts were being performed, it was the norm for the audience to react to what was going on on stage. But we don’t see the outward display of emotion anymore. Instead we sit quietly, watch the performers, and proceed to leave in a fashionable manner after the performance is over.

    I think it’s great that they still interact with the performance onstage. When the Rite of Spring was first premiered, it caused an actual riot in the theater. Music wasn’t supposed to just be taken in, we’re supposed to think about it, have reactions, decide whether or not we like the interpretation.

    Another aspect is that in Italy, it’s common practice to be loud about your emotions and you can see that in their culture if you ever visit. Everything is big, loud, and they don’t keep anything back. I think it’s only appropriate to find that these outspoken folks are going to the opera and letting folks know what’s on their minds.

    I too feel as though I at times pass judgement on what people where into a performance. I feel as though it has been long standing tradition for folks to wear nicer clothes when going to a concert, but I think that that has put off some new audiences and that the trend is moving elsewhere. Just because you don’t have a tux, and maybe can’t afford one, doesn’t mean you should be refused to see the opera.

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