It’s art festival season in Beijing — photography, electronica, everything French, and opera. I went to catch “Carmen,” against the advice of more cultured friends who can comment on the quality of local productions. The show was great. The audience, not so much. Read it here or on China Daily:
It’s summer and, along with gorgeous flora, the Beijing arts scene is blooming. Music festivals in the parks, visiting dance troupes, and theater productions are all there deliciously waiting for the partaking.
I’m glad that despite all the hoopla over its titanium-reinforced glass exterior and egg-like shape, the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) was actually built. Now I can watch opera, like I would at The Met in New York or the Esplanade in Singapore.
Two weeks ago, I impulsively bought tickets to see Carmen. Right after clicking the “purchase” button on Piao.com.cn, I panicked with buyer’s remorse. I knew nothing about the performers, hadn’t read any reviews, and didn’t bother to find out whether the NCPA’s productions were faithful. (A cultured friend panned the latter, which didn’t help allay my fears).
But when opera night rolled around, I learned that the performers’ operatic chops should have been the last of my concerns. Audience etiquette was the main issue.
While brilliant arias were being sung on stage, quite a separate show was happening off-stage. It started with the audience seating. Locating the right aisle and teetering down steep theater stairs is difficult (especially for a lady in heels) in any opera house, but it was especially challenging at NCPA because of all the “sightseers”.
I’m used to opera-goers purposefully finding their spots and efficiently working through the pre-show routine: arranging themselves comfortably, switching off mobile phones, unwrapping cough drops to avoid crinkling cellophane once the music starts, and perusing the program book. However, here, audience members were milling about, comparison-shopping for seats, taking group photos, and even testing the durability of the handrails.
I was relieved when the lights dimmed, for it forced everyone to take a seat (though not everyone took their assigned seat).
The orchestra started playing the overture as stragglers continued to stream in late and kick out any free riding “seat upgraders” occupying their rightful places. I was ready for show, but the sightseers were not. People continued to chat, greet each other, and express audible wonder at being in an opera house. This audience paid less respect to the overture than I’ve seen moviegoers give attention to previews.
I wanted to say something to a particularly loud group of eight men seated a few rows behind me. They were sporting the “Chinese tourist uniform” of dress pants, dress shirt, and dress shoes. Had it not been for their evident excitement and southern accents, I wouldn’t have known they were here as visitors. But I reasoned that if I shouldn’t add to the noise level with a confrontation. Plus, once the curtains went up they would probably quiet down.
The velour drapes parted to reveal a dazzling set of a Sevillian square. Buxom women in sumptuous skirts strolled about stage, languorously flirting with dashing military men. I was already entranced.
A flash and a shutter click quickly snapped me out of my operatic reverie. The Fujian contingent behind me had started digitally documenting the Sevillian scene in front of me. Although security looks tight at the NCPA – metal detectors, bag scans, and thorough searches – many cameras and all camera phones make it past the checkpoints. Now they were coming out of man purses in full force. The only thing that could’ve made the misuse of cellular technology worse at this point was if the opera house hadn’t blocked reception. Imagine obnoxious ring tones going off in accompaniment to the flashing cameras during Act One.
As annoying and inappropriate as the picture taking was, I figured the novelty would wear off. And it did, after an initial round, only to be replaced by exaggerated gasps of surprise and derisive chuckles at the dramatic Spanish romance unfolding on stage. An appreciative audience is one thing; one that adds its own soundtrack of responses is another.
At this point, the serious gentleman next to me couldn’t stand it any longer. He turned around and issued a firm whisper to the sightseers – “Could you please keep your voices down?” In the dark, I made a secret fist pumping motion. Finally, someone was brave enough to speak my mind!
Yet, instead of quieting down, the well-intentioned warning actually triggered a “shush war”. Not only did the offending audience members continue to chatter with unembarrassed nonchalance, everyone else felt justified to start loudly admonishing them. The exchanges resembled what you would hear in a farmer’s market brawl:
“Be quiet! If you want to chat, just leave!”
“What kind of manners do you have? If you don’t know how to watch a show, then don’t come to the theatre!”
“Shhhhh! Shhhhh! Shhhhhhhhh!”
It was too much for me. By the time Don Jos had wrestled Carmen to the ground in the impassioned final act, I could hardly wait to leave. And then I realized that I was about to commit an opera etiquette faux pas myself – hurrying out of the theater before the standing ovations were done.