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EVERYBODY PLEASE SIT DOWN

The standing ovation, once a response to a masterful performance, has become ‘a kind of cheapened routine.'

SARMISHTA SUBRAMANIAN November 13 2006
THE BACK PAGES

EVERYBODY PLEASE SIT DOWN

The standing ovation, once a response to a masterful performance, has become ‘a kind of cheapened routine.'

SARMISHTA SUBRAMANIAN November 13 2006

EVERYBODY PLEASE SIT DOWN

THE BACK PAGES

stage

The standing ovation, once a response to a masterful performance, has become ‘a kind of cheapened routine.'

SARMISHTA SUBRAMANIAN

In a pre-screening ad that made the circuit at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this fall, an usher, a young man in a T-shirt walks into a

hushed theatre gala to seat a patron—and gets a barn-burning round of applause from the crowd. The film fest leans heavily on its volunteers, and the ad’s message, to thank them, was well-intentioned enough. It also worked: after watching the clip, audiences in several theatres leapt to their feet clapping. But did TIFF volunteers really need a standing ovation—that superlative signal of audience appreciation once reserved for the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, the Dalai Lama, and Baryshnikov?

Today’s arts patrons certainly don’t need any more encouragement to spring from their seats in thunderous applause. It’s a good bet that innumerable evenings at auditoriums across North America this season will end with this ritual. The standing ovation, once a response to a masterful performance, is now de rigueur after even the most pedestrian. “People rise to their feet far too much,”

says Shelagh Kareda, the wife of the late theatre director and critic Urjo Kareda. “Standing ovations have become a kind of cheapened routine,” says Leon Botstein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College in New York state. “It’s like turning up the volume louder and louder because you are no longer excited by the volume you are used to.” “When everything receives an ovation,” says John Heilpern, the theatre critic for the New York Observer, “nothing is receiving one.” Audiences in the 18th and 19th centuries responded more viscerally, cheering and stomping when they liked something—and booing when they didn’t, sometimes right over the music. Performers did try to lead the crowd, among other things employing professional applauders, called claqueurs. There were rieurs, who laughed on demand, and pleurers, who cried. Women hired by opera houses threw flowers (later recycled),

and many groups even offered a sliding scale of services: regular clapping came cheaper than “insistent applause,” which cost much less than “wild enthusiasm,” according to Clappers: A History of Applause, created by David Owen Norris for BBC Radio. But that didn’t filter out the crowd’s own hisses and jeers. Opera audiences in Europe still boo. There are concerts in Italy at which some people cheer and others boo: an audience having a conversation with itself.

Here in North America, the response is more decorous. Ovations are habitual, and quite easily led. “A few people stand up,” says John Fraser, master of Massey College in Toronto and one-time dance critic, “and most of us are like goats.” Standing ovations also encourage an element of peer pressure, as anyone who has sat through one will attest. Fraser has witnessed an ovation accidentally started by a ballet patron simply trying to leave the theatre after the show. Stalwart theatre-, operaand symphony-goers refuse to stand simply out of habit, or because everyone else is up. “I’m the last to get up,” says Botstein reso-

lutely. “It’s a little too much like fascism.”

If you are a performer, there are subtle tricks to ensure a standing ovation—claptraps, quite literally. Certain people will reliably get one: child prodigies, performers who are ill or dying or retiring. “When Vladimir Horowitz came out of retirement, every concert he gave, regardless of how he played, got a standing ovation,” says Botstein, who is writing a book on the history of listening. Then there are the pieces that always get standing ovations: Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony or Mahler’s Eighth (or Beethoven’s Fifth, “a connoisseur’s claptrap” according to Norris). Or theatre shows with big-name stars—or very big sets. People are moved by big sets, says Kareda. She points out that The Lord of the Rings premiere in Toronto got rousing ovations. Later, theatregoers “went all over town saying it stank.” Not everyone believes we’re in the midst of an ovation epidemic. Ovations may simply follow fashion, Fraser argues. “Right now in Toronto,” he says, “opera is hot. Used to

be the symphony was hot, and for a period of time theatre—little theatre particularly.” When an art form is in vogue, he says, people ovate. “No one stands for the symphony anymore. They used to, in Massey Hall.”

And some audiences are more lavish than others. The Met, Fraser says, is a “bravo-crazy house.” London’s Royal Opera House tends to be more reserved. “We are not a demonstrative people,” admits Norris, a classical pianist himself and a fellow at Oxford. (Although, he points out, his countrymen did deliver what amounted to a national standing ovation of grief, after the death of Princess Di.) But there is demonstrative, and then there is overenthusiastic. Fraser recalls that at old Canadian Opera Company concerts, audiences would cheerfully applaud seven-yearold sets. His wife, the writer Elizabeth MacCallum, recalls one set that incorporated rocks numbered for the convenience of the stagehands—and placed onstage with the numbers showing. No matter: on came the ovation.

For serious listeners, all this applause can be a terrible distraction. “I’ve been in perfor-

manees where they played Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde,” says Botstein, “and people started cheering.” That’s an odd response to an exquisitely melancholy work. “They’ve missed the point!” he says. “What are they clapping about? I’m ready to shoot myself.” The Observer’s Heilpern observes a similar trend in theatre. “In the rush to give a standing ovation,” he says, “a slow curtain, a pause at the end of a show, a beat or moment of reflection, have become impossible.”

For performers, it can be even more frustrating. During a solo concert in Japan a few years ago, the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett registered his displeasure at a fan’s ill-timed applause in between two rather quiet pieces by stopping his performance mid-note. The silence lasted 15 seconds and is captured for posterity in Tokyo Solo, a recently released DVD of the show. Jarrett is famously prickly— he’s rumoured to hand out cough drops to audiences in an effort to pre-empt interruptions. (His own trademark guttural outbursts don’t seem to slow him down any.)

Still, his irritation is understandable. And there are musicians who’ve suffered worse fates from an audience’s generosity. At one performance of Lucia that Botstein attended at the Met, the hall delivered a 20-minute standing ovation (cheers, clapping, tossed bouquets) after the last aria from soprano Joan Sutherland, not realizing that the opera wasn’t over yet. Some people began to leave. “And then the curtain rises, and here is this poor tenor,” recalls Botstein. “And I thought, what is he going to do now, after that—tear off his clothes? Well, wouldn’t you know it, he loses his voice. And I blame it on the stupid standing ovation.”

The genuine article still exists, and one can usually tell it from practised, robotic applause. There was, for instance, the spontaneous ovation given to Richard Bradshaw when he came onstage to introduce the Governor General

at the opening of Toronto’s new opera house earlier this year. It left the GG waiting, forgotten, as a grateful Bradshaw took his bows and then burst, sweetly and a little inexplicably, into a rendition of 0 Canada. Onstage, too, a skilful conductor or singer can extract the right sort of ovation from a crowd. “You learn when you end a piece, not to put your hands down,” says Botstein. “You can control the distance between what you’re doing and the applause by holding the silence.”

Nevertheless, the ovation is now so commonplace that soon, the only reasonable way to judge one performance against another may be to see whose applause lasts longer. In this, the politics of theatre can take a cue from the theatre of politics. Witness the long-running contest between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his archrival, Chancellor Gordon Brown, whose respective standing ovations

have been the subject of great debate. A BBC story on the Labour Party conference a few weeks ago included the following vital statistics for Gordon Brown: “Standing ovation: two mins 45 secs; Applause: 41 bursts during speech.” A story the next day reported on Tony Blair: “Standing ovation: nine mins 13 secs—and clapping during a four-minute film while he was offstage.” Clearly a retiring performer’s last hurrah.

The standing ovation has its defenders. As Fraser puts it, there are discerning audiences, and generous audiences, and ignorant audiences, but at least there are audiences. Nor does the devalued, inflated ovation reflect a lack of sophistication. Audiences, generally speaking, are more knowledgeable than they used to be, says Botstein. Perhaps swollen ticket prices are partly to blame; if you’re shelling out a few hundred dollars to take the family to see The Producers or Blue Man Group, you may be desperate to convince

yourself it’s a masterpiece. The clapping may also be about an audience’s eagerness to participate. “It’s good that Broadway audiences, and New Yorkers in particular, don’t sit on their hands like the reserved Brits,” says Heilpern. “But their habitual standing o’s often seem as if they’re applauding themselves for being there.” That goes for the rest of us, too. We are perhaps the opposite of those claqueurs: we pay to clap, thank you very much.

But the problem may run deeper. The profusion of ovations may reflect a broader depreciation of praise in society. “When I read recommendations for people,” says Botstein, “everybody sounds like Einstein and Mozart. But they’re not—can’t be true. We are drowning in words and praise and hyperbole, and part of that is the clapping.”

Botstein would like to give a concert where people boo. “It shows they care about what

they’re hearing,” he says. Norris, likewise, says what’s more flattering than an entire audience standing is “people looking as if they’re thinking about it.” But the truly gratifying response from a crowd is silence. The greatest compliment Norris saw paid to a musician was in Winnipeg, after Bramwell Tovey, now with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, conducted a piece by Delius. “When it ended, very softly, very beautifully,” he recalls, “there was absolute silence from the audience. Bramwell laid down his baton and there was still complete silence. And Bramwell left the stage, and there was still silence, and the extra players for the next piece came on, and still this hush was maintained—until Bramwell appeared again, and then the house fell in.” Nobody was standing. It wasn’t necessary. M