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Orchestra Etiquette Part II

A view through the centuries on proper behavior.

by Holly Mulcahy
July 5, 2010

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Orchestra Etiquette Part II

In the etiquette books I featured last month, great detail and care was given on proper behavior to enhance one's enjoyment of attending concerts and shows. Flowery texts used wit and sincerity to give the readers every chance to share a wonderful concert experience.

But as the century turned, the general mood toward concert etiquette shifted from politeness so enjoyment wasn't squashed, to politeness so one could come across as upper class. It was all to keep up appearances it seemed.
 In the 1929 book, Vogue's Book of Etiquette, there was haughtiness in the question and answers section in the General Behaviour chapter.
"Is it polite for a man to leave a woman alone in her seat and go out between the acts at the opera?" If he knows her well enough to be alone at the opera with her, he must know her well enough to ask her permission to leave her while he smokes a cigarette. She would very likely go out with him. If she did not, he would not stay long, nor leave her alone more than once.
"How does opera behaviour differ from theatre behaviour?" It is more ceremonious. People in the boxes and orchestra-stalls in the evening are expected to wear evening dress. More people, both men and women, leave their seats between the acts and walk the corridors.
"How do people sit in the boxes?" The woman who owns the box or to whom it has been lent for the evening occupies the least desirable position. She gives the seat with the best view to the eldest or the most distinguished guest. If she has two women with her, the youngest usually occupies the middle chair.
"What is the etiquette of visiting boxes at the opera?" Men do not all leave the box at the same time. They see that their own party has at least one masculine attendant. Men visiting other boxes during entr'actes usually make the move to return to their own when the lowering of the lights shows that the curtain is about to go up. Women visit each other in their boxes only at matinees.
"Should a man enter a box where he knows only the men?" Not unless he were sent on a message or had to speak to some man on his own account. The box is technically the woman's castle, and a stranger does not come in except with credentials.
"What are a man's duties after the opera?" At least one man, if not more, must see that the women are safely bestowed in their home-going vehicles before taking leave of the party.
By mid-century, some of the spectacle was relaxed. But it was apparent that, while one could keep up appearances, women could also start exercising their increasing independence. In the 1962 "Amy Vanderbilt's New Complete Book of Etiquette", advice to the concertgoer was less formal.
"As with many other social customs there has been an increasing trend toward less formality at the opera. It was once unthinkable for a man or woman sitting in a box or in the orchestra [floor] to appear in anything but full evening dress. Today, except on opening night-or in New York on fashionable Monday night-full dress is the exception rather than the rule. In the balconies dark suits are usually worn by the men and street dresses or suits by the women, depending on what their later plans are. As in the theater, the balcony is a "don't dress" section, unless a couple is going on to some other function where evening dress is expected. A couple in evening dress but sitting in the balcony might seem to be slumming, though it is true that those who know music and the dance prefer the vantage point of the first balcony to the more fashionable orchestra [floor].
Any woman guest wishing to visit friends during intermission excuses herself to her hostess and visits, briefly, accompanied by some male guest in the box. It is proper at the opera to applaud after arias and of course at each curtain. At concerts applause is held, even after a solo, until the conductor, by turning on the podium toward the audience, indicates that the selection is over. Even at the end of a program the enchantment should never be broken by applause until the conductor has turned for his bow to the audience. His each appearance form the wings is applauded, however, but the house becomes quiet the minute he turns to face the orchestra."
Until the 1990s, most of the concertgoer etiquette rules were variations from Amy Vanderbilt's book. Somehow, in the 90s, concert etiquette seemed to disappear from newer etiquette books. One could still find revised editions of etiquette books from the first part of the century, but there was nothing new to share about proper behavior in a concert situation.
Then in 2008, Clinton Kelly, co-host of The Learning Channel's popular show What Not to Wear, wrote a book entitled Freakin' Fabulous. While the word ‘etiquette' doesn't appear in the title, it is a very comprehensive book on proper behavior.
        My Seven Cardinal Rules for Broadway, Off-Broadway, the opera, the ballet, and touring groups:
1.       Wear something nice. Your fellow theatergoers are paying for the entire experience, which includes being surrounded by fabulous people.
2.       When entering a row in which people are already sitting, shimmy in facing the stage. It's better to put your buttocks in someone's face than your reproductive organs.
3.        Don't be a hair-hopper. The legitimate theater is no place for a leftover Whitesnake groupie. The person behind you purchased a view also.
4.       Keep your head fairly still. I had to get snippy with a woman in front of me recently because her head was bopping like a metronome, and I hate having to get snippy.
5.       Turn your cell phone OFF, not on vibrate. Vibrate makes noise, ya dope.
6.       Unwrap your candy before the show. And don't crunch it.
7.       Don't watch the entire show, then leave right before or during curtain call just so you can be the first on to catch a cab. How incredibly rude to deprive the cast of their applause! The next time I see you do this I might "accidentally" stick my foot in the aisle and trip you.
Clinton Kelly's book is very casual, almost a conversation to his readers. While it was very relaxed, it was reminiscent of the books from the late 1800s in that it brings back the importance of the concert experience over just how to be seen.
Should there be a bigger presence of rules and etiquette for today's audiences? Does an audience member feel more at ease if there is a general understanding of how to behave? Should orchestras share traditional rules when they play in schools? Please share your own thoughts.

Comments (2)


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Janis from Los Angeles writes:
July 19, 2010
Oy, not sure here. The only real "rules" are the ones that -- as you've already stated -- impact the audience members' enjoyment of the performance. That said though, there are definitely some that I'd like to see jettisoned entirely.

The no-applause-between-movements rule still rankles for me because it feels constrained, tense, and artificial. If something sounds great, applaud. If a piece of music seems suited to a more subdued response, the audience will generally be quieter in showing their appreciation without being scolded into it. But this argument has been done to death lately.

I also agree with the "wear something nice" advice as well. People think that this turns the working class off to classical music, but they have no idea how wonderful an experience like that -- an opportunity to play dress up when you spend the rest of your life buttoned into a polyester uniform with a name tag and steel-toed shoes -- is to a member of the working class. It's only the wealthy who seem to think that their jeans and flip-flops are just fine for state dinners.

Ben Ordaz from Somewhere out West writes:
August 4, 2010
Thank you, Holly, for providing these insightful etiquette 'cerpts. I wish i can add something different than 'yes' to your final questions, but the fact of the matter is the classical symphonic or operatic experience, unless clearly noted in specific concerts like those of the Kronos Quartet, is made for etiquette and silence.

People lament the fact that patrons of Mozart could eat and socialize while his orchestras played sinfonias and operas, but later music, still played today, was written with serious, still audiences in expectation. Can you imagine Wagner's Tristan opening in the same way if he knew people would be eating and talking? Or Beethoven 9? Or Brahms 2? Even Liszt, who attracted boisterous crowds to his popular recitals, probably didn't have cat-calls in mind with the dramatically soft opening of his Sonata in b minor.

I wish i could say "we need a revolution in concert etiquette," but many of the works we remember today function best when rapt attention and silence is the norm. So in answer to all of your questions, yes!

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