Opera-goers are not like you or me. They occupy a different world. Those of you who do not go to opera think you know what it is like because you have seen it in Hitchcock films, or A Night at the Opera, or even in Foul Play. You think that what happens in opera is assassins shooting the occupants of the royal box, or people chasing other people backstage or Harpo sliding down the scenery. But I know this is not true because I have been to the opera, and nobody shot anybody. What happens in opera is the people who have come to see it. Even the things going on onstage are not so important; everyone knows the plot already. The opera, really, has happened before the audience gets there. It’s only the audience that hasn’t happened yet.
The first thing I noticed about the audience was that they all knew each other. The Coliseum, where I had gone to see Rossini’s La Cenerentola, is the largest theatre in London, yet everyone knew everyone else, apart from me who didn’t know anyone. I would imagine they all meet beforehand in the largest pub in London, whichever that is, to have a quick drink and discuss what they think about the opera they haven’t seen yet. They then arrive at the theatre and take their seats to discuss it all over again. Then nothing much happens until the interval, when they all go out into the stately corridors and bars to eat picnics which they have brought with them, unless they stay in their boxes to eat dinners which they have brought with them.
It was this that gave me the clue. I was reminded of going up to Edinburgh this year for the Festival and walking through the train to the buffet car. The route there was lined with carriage loads of people eating picnics of paté, French bread, cheese, salami, wine and more wine, out of good old wicker hampers. Who were they, I asked? The Kent Opera, I was told. Singers, musicians, all scoffing away; the audience in the Coliseum, scoffing away, as if on some camping holiday. And then it clicked; opera is a form of camping, but indoor camping. The joy of opera is in the preparation – preparing the food, stocking the wine, not forgetting the corkscrew – and the purest form of opera is camping outdoors at Glyndebourne. These very same people, in other circumstances, would be tramping across the hills or out spotting wild life.
That’s why opera houses are stuffed full of binoculars in every seat: so that the audience can do some indoor spotting. I heard one woman say to her friend in the interval, ‘We’ve got a pair of chatterers behind us’. ‘You’re lucky’, replied the friend, ‘ I’ve got a pair of lovers behind me.’ (I spotted like mad in the second act, but couldn’t locate them.) Opera is a very slow business, unravelling at about the speed of a crisp packet returning to shape after you’ve crumpled it, so the best way of whiling away the time is studying, not the stars, but the chorus in attendance on the stage. They are filling in time, just as the audience themselves have previously filled in time queuing for the tickets, and it is a joy to watch them onstage; having imaginary conversations, swigging lustily out of empty bottles, smiling at the good news, starting back in horror at the bad and looking very tense indeed as the Prince sings, ‘Go now, - do not stay’, and the messenger sings ‘I stay not – I will go’, which takes at least ten minutes. That is a long time to stay tense, but the chorus at the Coliseum did not let us down. Conscious that a thousand binoculars were trained on them, they behaved as immaculately as a pair of reed warblers or a heron or anything else normally looked at through glasses. One almost expects the chorus to look at their watches and get out a hamper and sit down onstage for their picnic, for in some ways they are only an inferior kind of audience.
This is proved by the climax of the opera, which occurs after the final curtain. When the last note has been sung, the entire cast appear to pay tribute to the audience. Then the soloists appear one by one to show how much each of them has appreciated the audience’s performance. The audience respond with a dizzying display of applauding. The cast reassemble for a final tribute. Still the audience goes on. The cast is in despair. How can they bring it to an end? They send for the conductor. They send for the producer. They would send for Rossini if they could. But on and on the audience goes, for it knows very well that they are the important ones there tonight.
If you too would like to perform in a top West End opera, you can. Simply go along and buy your special Awayday outing ticket, which entitles you to be on display any night you choose. But for heaven’s sake do not forget to take the right equipment, the right clothes and above all the right rations and drink. Good luck. You probably won’t see me there. I shall be at home listening to it on the radio. I’m afraid I’m simply not the camping and rambling type.
Ms London November 12 1979