Should you go to a performance with a bad cold?

Should you go to a performance with a bad cold?


norman lebrecht

October 16, 2013

A spat has erupted on Slipped Disc over one of our contributors who went to the Metropolitan Opera bearing the first of the seasonal catarrhs. It was no excuse, readers felt, that the opera he attended was called The Nose.  If you’ve got a cold, keep it to yourself is the accepted etiquette.

But do we? Which of us has cancelled a flight after coughing all night? The confined space of an aircraft is a worse spreader of germs than the vastness of the Met.

Which of us has been blamed for not turning up to work because we had a cold?

And don’t we applaud singers on being told that they are going ahead with their performance despite having a touch of flu?

There seems to be widespread confusion about what to do with a cold when you’ve got tickets for the opera. Slipped Discers, what’s your best advice?



  • Turn up to the performance, then if it’s clear your coughing will be disruptive, go into the foyer and stay there.

    • Leslie says:

      Three times in my long life I have had to leave the theatre and spend favorite parts of an opera or concert in the foyer, so as not to bother other patrons or the artists. I hated missing some of the performance, but how could I bother others?

      The pianist Alfred Brendel, has a marvelous, but deadly serious poem about coughers and sneezers in the audience.

  • Andrea Katz says:

    Give them to a friend

  • Will Duffay says:

    If you’re going to make a noise – by coughing or sneezing – stay at home.

  • Michael says:

    I do not believe there is any confusion about this, let alone widespread. If you are coughing and sneezing you will transmit germs to those near you. Deliberately doing this in the confines of a theatre is just selfish.

    It does not matter if you already have tickets: what your blogger did was the same as if he had turned up on the day with his infection and bought tickets for the performance.

    I have to say that in thousands of theatrical performances of many kinds, I have very rarely encountered anyone with Shawn’s attitude to taking an illness to the theatre. Much more common is people unwrapping sweets (rarely cough sweets), talking, kicking the back of my seat and – today’s curse – playing with their mobiles.

    As for being “blamed for not turning up to work”, most employers now prefer someone stays away for a few days – especially given the possibility in many cases of being to able to continue to do some valuable work remotely – rather than splutter and infect colleagues.

  • Una says:

    A cold is just a cold, and everyone gets one, and at this time of year with the change of season, half the population would be out of bounds if they were to just stay at home from everything. BUT I take exception when people are steaming with a cold or have a hacking cough, and then turn up disrupting the performance – or turning up for work, playing the martyr, and giving everyone else in the office a dreadful cold by which time weeks have gone on, and the first person has been infected again – and thanks to air conditioning too in vast quantities. Yes, keep it to yourself if you are going to broadcast tot the nation that you have a cold!!

    But it seems to me everyone in New York ast least who goes to the opera or Carnegie Hall has a cough – and probably not a cold. I couldn’t believe the level of coughing when I went to four productions and the Hall in 2003, and it wasn’t the winter. It seems to go on all the time over there to the point of distraction from Met audiences over the airwaves even. I was sitting in the National Media Museum in Bradford, Yorkshire, watching a Met relay on the big screen. There wasn’t a meek out out of the audience in the Museum, but you could hear the coughing coming from New York. And of course they are notorious for starting to applaud before the curtain even goes down at the end! If anyone starts coughing in the audience here, they just get told to either shut up, or the look that you give people when their mobile goes off. That seems to solve the vast majority of ‘designer’ coughs in the opera, whatever about anything else. But then you have those who turn up, never been to an opera before, which is great in itself and what we want, but then they think they’re at the cinema – they talk, comment, open a bag of sweet, fortunately not the popcorn, and have no idea. Will be interested to see The Nose in Britain, and if we get the coughing in Bradford again but not actually in Bradford but coming from New York at the Met!

    As for singers, and I speak as one, the critics are more severe, every note a singer sings is dissected on blogs and over the internet by so called ‘experts’. More singers are cancelling than in the old days as a result, and I suppose singers are just plain scared that they will let their audiences down and find themselves dragged through some awful review the next day with everyone emailing, tweeting and the likes, so warn them that they are going on in spite of not being up to scratch. The pressures are enormous from the critics, FaceBook, Twitter, blogs and the ‘expert’ audiences who compare every performance they hear to the pieced up CD they have at home, which is often flawless and rarely live music. I’m just glad I’m at the end of my career and was able to enjoy the level I attained without every note being held up for scutiny by people who don’t get up and do the job, but seem to know everything about singing and how to do it and how it should be!!!!

    • Derek Castle says:

      I don’t mind people bringing their picnics to the cinema broadcasts – if they would only restrain their hunger pangs until the interval before clinking glasses, rustling crisp bags and passing on to the rest of us the delicious smell of their spiced chicken legs. The Overture – if there is one – is deemed to be the time for that last, important chat. As for playing with mobile phones – the introduction of a certain Middle Eastern penalty regarding ‘hands’ might not come amiss.

  • Peter Smith says:

    Older UK readers will remember the following, which regularly used to appear in the printed programmes at the Royal Festival Hall:

    “During tests in the Hall, a note played mezzo-forte on the horn measured approximately 65 decibels of sound. A single uncovered cough gave the same reading. A handkerchief placed over the mouth when coughing assists in obtaining a pianissimo.”

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of attending performances with a cold, I can never understand why people don’t make more effort to suppress their coughs and sneezes.

  • Dawn Kotoski fired me as Neil Schicoff’s publicist because I went to see the opening night of Schicoff’s Il Trovatore at the MET. Dawns mother reported to Dawn that I was there, handing out good will CD’s to patrons and fans of Schicoff and if you ever saw that ridiculous production, which was described in the Jewish Daily Forward as a clip from the Marx Brothers, it would have been wiser to stay home.

    • Helen – with the best will in the world, what was the point of that post?

      • Sasha says:

        One would hope that Neil Shicoff’s publicist would know how to spell his name correctly. There’s no “c” in his surname.

        I saw the premiere of that Graham Vick Trovatore It was indeed like the Marx Brothers. Truly, nobody has exploited the comic potential of that opera so well since Groucho, Harpo, et. al. I haven’t laughed that loudly in years. Unfortunately, due to the overwhelmingly negative feedback, they removed all the nonsensical bits. After that, it was merely boring.

      • Ah ha Theodore. I reported to Mrs. Shicoff earlier that day – New York to Vienna or Zurich or wherever – that I had a cold. Nothing serious and she demanded that out of consideration to the singers I should NOT go to the opera. Well by 6 PM I was fine and dandy and decided to go. Evidently she had reported my sniffles to her mother, who runs that show, and bottom line I got fired at 4 AM because I went to the opera without a cold. It cost me a bottle of Mouton du Rothschild.

        Sasha thanks for pointing out my typo.

    • Una says:

      Sorry but what has handing out CDs got to do with coughing and colds in concerts?

  • ed says:

    There are so many distractions at concerts besides the hacking coughs, or the wheezing or sniffling. Despite house warnings, cell phones still sometimes make their presence known with ring tones interrupting pregnant pauses or competing in Ivesian fashion with the show tunes, or with text messages that light up for their intent users. And there are the neighbors who rattle paper- programs or newspapers- or who crunch crackers or hard candies- Ricola, anyone?-, or the friends and critics who whisper about the music or not about it….. and then there are the tall people, very tall people.

    I remember once a concert of Schubert lieder- Goerne was the singer. Up to that time I had been a regular in the second balcony, but this time my brother had given me a front row box seat. Arriving just before the house went black, I found that I was sharing the box with a congenial German tourist family, every one of whose members could have played in the front court of the Boston Celtics if height, body weight, and general health were the only determinants. The patriarch and matriarch were already comfortably ensconced in the front two seats, and I was mindful that enforcing my rights would cause last minute disruption. So, I squeezed into one of those high chairs in the back better suited for sitting at a bar. Even so, my neighbors’ erect postures made it hard to see anything absent a contortionist’s act, and I began to wish for a drink. The first half of the concert was spellbinding and the discomfort soon dissipated. At intermission, I pulled out my ticket stub, pondering whether I should gently make the switch- it was die mutter who would have been evicted- but then got into conversation with the family and we all started to bond and become friends- they were, after all visiting the city and it was a nice event for them. So, I thought, ‘what the hell’, until we got into a discussion about Die Schöne Müllerin, or so I thought, and the father said, “I love Schumann but I hate Schubert”. I nearly gagged on my Ricola, but the warning bell rang, the lights went down, and I kicked myself for having lost my chance to sit in a comfortable chair with an unimpeded view and an arm rest, to boot. I thought later my brother must have known something.

  • David Boxwell says:

    Supposedly Furtwangler weeded out the wheezy for his RAI Ring performances Rome, 1953). Perhaps conductors should stand at the door and personally vet all audience members for their health & wellness. Those who don’t pass muster get to watch the performances in a room on closed circuit TV.

  • Beaumont says:

    It seems to me that more and more audience members seem to mix up their respective living rooms with the auditorium of a theatre/opera house – I’ve had people eating hamburgers next to me (in Vienna, where up to a couple of years ago you would have been shot for this), using the light of their mobile phones to search for stuff, or talking to each other to comment on the performers, etc.

    This is why I still love the late, great Ulrich Mühe: he actually threw out a member of the audience in a performance of Mamet’s Oleanna in Vienna I attended, because of her persistent coughing: ‘I’m sorry, but this is not your living room’ – out she went. GREAT!!

    On the other hand, there is the story of Alec Guinness, who was so fed up with a lady in the first row watching him through a pair of binoculars that he took them away from her during the first half of the performance. In the break, an employee of the theatre came to him and said: ‘The blind lady in the front row would like to apologise for any distress she may have caused.’ Mortification all round.

    And BTW: LISTEN is an anagram of SILENT

    • Steve Foster says:

      lol…What does a blind lady need with binoculars? Did she get them from the deaf guy seated next to her?

      Kidding aside, when the very event depends on the aural experience, there is no excuse for showing up knowing you will disrupt that experience. Responsibility appears to be lost in the winds of freedom for much of the West.

    • Schöne müllerin says:

      I had my worst experience at a “Zauberflöte” in Phoenix, AZ. The lady next to me was filing her fingernails with a rather loud instrument. As she did not stop when the ouverture started, I asked “could you please stop it, you are not at home in front of your tv” . Recognizing my Austrian dialect , I got a very angry “Donke sheen”, but than there was silence.

      • Michael says:

        I had a similar experience at a performance of Ashton’s Midsummer Night’s Dream ballet at Covent Garden some years ago. A pair of Sloane Henrys and Henriettas arrived late just as the conductor took his bow. A few seconds after the music started, which – as readers will know – is very quiet, Henrietta #1 took out a file and started rasping her nails. As music was so quiet, I felt I could not say anything as I would end up disturbing even more people. After a minute or two the file was put away. The next time there was some very quite music, she took the nail file out again! Same reluctance on my part, but when it came out for the third time my patience expired and I said – in a very annoyed and possibly rather loud attempt at a stage whisper – “Madam! Could you please stop filing your nails!”, heard by several dozen people around I am sure. With a huffing shrug of her shoulders she put the nail file away in her bag and left it there for the rest of the evening. Of course, she had for me and other patrons spoiled some of the most elegant and sublime music ever written, but she obviously did not care. This – like the germ-spreading – was simply bad manners and selfishness.

  • Dave T says:

    Agree that coughers and sneezers are horribly disruptive, if not belligerent in their disregard for the health of others. OTOH, eating a ticket for which you paid huge bucks is no easy decision. One solution would be for management, in the interests of ALL, to allow the convalescent to exchange his ticket for that of another performance. In wouldn’t work in all cases– e.g. patrons coming from out of town– and there may be abuse, but it would be in everyone’s interest.

  • robcat2075 says:

    I recall several years ago a piano soloist at the Dallas Symphony stopped between movements to express disapproval of a child with a rattle in the front row.

  • Una says:

    Bryn Terfel in Carnegie Hall, New York, after the second song of singing Schwanengesang cycle said, ‘Oh, we are coughing well tonight’, in a broad Welsh accent. They soon shut up after that!!