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If you attend a lot of live performances -- of any kind -- you know well how the people around you can mar the experience. I think I must be some kind of magnet for misbehaving cretins, since they're always sitting near me -- the talkers, the page-turners, the candy-cravers, the ladies with 500 clanging bracelets crammed onto their arms so that they emit a chorus of "Jingle Bells" with every slight move.

Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Opera House, while a really terrific concert version of "Gotterdammerung" was being performed by Washington National Opera, a couple of over-aged lovebirds in the row ahead kept up a nonstop series of distractions: kiss-kiss, head on shoulder for a few seconds, kiss-kiss, whisper, head back on shoulder, kiss kiss, whisper. I was amazed that they lasted through the five-hour event and, sure enough, they were the first on their feet to applaud when it was over -- had they actually heard anything of the performance?

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And then there was the guy in one of the balconies who screamed out something near the end of the first act. I swear I thought I heard "Wotan!", but that was probably my imagination. My guess is that the man had fallen asleep and was dreaming; or maybe he had been dragged to the opera by a domineering spouse and was expressing his annoyance. Either way, not the sort of thing you want to hear during Wagner.

Oh yes, there was also the unfortunate

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malfunctioning hearing aid that squealed on and on through the start of the first act -- in my row, of course. At least that was not deliberate.

I had quite a different situation the night before in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where Kiri Te Kanawa gave a recital, and I realized part-way through why the large audience hardly made a sound -- the soprano sang softly and intimately through most of the program. If you wanted to hear, you had to behave. Sure enough, even the usual coughing and sneezing and wheezing seemed to diminish as the recital proceeded. It was a wonderful effect -- the beauty of the singing, the refinement of Brian Zeger's piano accompaniment and a large audience hanging onto every note.

I really do think it was the nature of the music-making that did the trick. I've noticed the same thing at an unamplified play when the actors speak subtly. People really can listen quietly if they try. Too bad it's not the rule.

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