Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Coughing Debate

A woman was dying of consumption. We shouldn't have been looking, but it was gripping nonetheless. 'Cessarono. Gli spasmi del dolore. In me rinasce m'agita Insolito vigore! Ah! io ritorno a vivere.' And with those words Violetta breathed her last. Despite the hideous illness with which La traviata ends, last night's performance at the Royal Opera House was dominated by the sound of the audience's coughing. Like an empathetic bus-load of consumptives, the auditorium rang with the sound of hacking. And, more or less, it only occurred during the quiet bits (of which there are a lot in Act 3).

Although La traviata provides the most ironic instance of bronchial barking intruding on the music, it isn't the worst. The slow and steady Arabian Dance in The Nutcracker often prompts such spasms and I remember an awful instance during the final bars of an LSO Mahler 9. My friend, sitting next to me in the Barbican, railed loudly against the offending cougher during the applause. So, why do people cough during classical music?

The short answer is nerves or, more bluntly, a lack of concentration. They feel on edge. The silence and focus required by these performances has a bizarrely reverse effect. Attention is brought back on to uncertain members of the audience and they feel the need to act out. Bronchial emissions are the mid-performance equivalent of the entrance and curtain call applause. We somehow feel bereft when silenced by the very thing that has, supposedly, brought us in the first place.

Genuinely 'ill' responses, the winter cold or (heaven forbid) consumption, are incredibly few and far between. What dominates is the arid open-mouthed cough, without a hand or scarf or jumper placed in front of the mouth. It echoes (as one BBC National Orchestra of Wales concert programme used to tell us) at the same volume as a mezzo forte note on the horn. It's like adding a whole new level of orchestration to the work or, as in last night's performance, placing Violetta in a ward of hundreds of consumptives.

It's noticeable that where concentration is largely much better - at Wigmore Hall for instance - coughing is minimal. Although the inter-movement cough, alas also prevalent at Wigmore, is a particularly odd phenomenon, these sounds chime with the New Zealand-born musicologist Christopher Small's theories about audience behaviour. Like clapping, it allows us to fill the auditory space. Having been wowed (or bored) by what's been performed, we feel the need to make our own noise. Concert halls (and opera houses) seem to claim one-way conversation; audiences insist on two-way dialogue. Candidly, people just don't know where to stop. Clearly, nothing is sacred anymore.

But then concert halls and opera houses were built as social spaces and audiences rightly react to their environments in a fashion similar to the way they would in a restaurant or bar. They've paid for the privilege and want to react accordingly. But the coughing thing presents a particular challenge. For one, it's incredibly annoying and invades the space of other members of the audience. But not only do we have to try and hear 'above' it, we also need to address why people actually feel on edge or lack the concentration required by a 35-minute stretch of music. So, it's not why do people cough, but why do they go at all? As ever, it's about music education.

Ermonela Jaho as Violetta and Stephen Costello as Alfredo
In The Royal Opera's production of La traviata
Photograph © ROH/Catherine Ashmore