Tuesday 13 September 2005

A dose of the clap - the irresistable rise of applause

Last night we finally caught up with the South Bank Show's film about Margot Fonteyn, the English ballerina with the Royal Ballet. Regarding the Royal Ballet's first visit to America, where the reaction of the New York audience was astounding, one of the now elderly participants recalled the unbridled way that the audience applauded. Nowadays were are acustomed, in ballet, to the audience applauding whenever a dancer does something astounding. This is behaviour which would not commend itself to Dame Ninette de Valois, the founder of the Royal Ballet. In one of her books she makes it quite clear that she dislikes applause because it breaks into the theatrical magic; I seem to remember that she would even have liked to stop applause at the end of a ballet because it turns the theatrical characters back into actors playing a part.

This feeling that an audience has a right to applaud whenever they are impressed is now creeping into orchestral music. It is becoming more common for audiences to applaud at the end of a movement, completely ignoring the composer's intentions regarding dramatic structure; as if the acknowledgement of the listener's presence and appreciation is more important than the composer's intentions.

Effectively audiences are asserting their right to participate in a performance rather then dumbly sitting there. Unfortunately many audience members are thereby displaying their lack of understanding of some of the fundamentals of musical construction. This is nowhere more obvious than in 19th century opera with the pairing of cavatina and cabaletta. This construction, where a slow-ish short-ish solo number is followed by/interrupted by some dialogue which changes the mood leading directly into a bravura cabaletta, has its origins in opera seria. The structure was developed by composers like Handel as a means of keeping the leading singer on stage for longer. In opera seria the convention was that the singer left the stage after each major aria; by introducing a short, strophic number before the main aria the singer was thus kept on stage for longer. That the construction was statisfactory is shown by its large-scale adoption by 19th century Romantic opera composers. Unfortunately audiences repeatedly disregard the music's structure and applause after the cavatina, thus completely breaking the mood. Understandable in less familiar operas, this is profoundly annoying in more familiar operas such as Verdi's La Traviata, where the majority of the audience must surely know what is coming.

It would of course, be unfair to artists to ban applause entirely. But I do feel that we should start to try and educate audiences rather than blindly letting them clap whenever they want to. Unfortunately this sort of education treads on the toes of current concerns, raising issues of audience rights and the spectre of elitism as it is becoming increasingly unfashionable to know something about anything. Or am I just being cynical

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