Sustained booing at Covent Garden for new William Tell

Sustained booing at Covent Garden for new William Tell


norman lebrecht

June 30, 2015

The first night audience at the Royal Opera House is not a baying mob. Disapproval is expressed by low applause and early departure. Last night, the audience broke its behaviour rules at a bad new production.

Tim Walton reports:

I have just been to see William Tell at the ROH. The first night of a new production and the first performance at CG for 22 years.

It started ok, but then soldiers appeared with machine guns!

In the 3rd act things went from bad to worse when the soldiers grabbed one of the peasants, stripped her and there was then a mock rape. The booing started and went on through most of the act and at the end.  Dozens of people then got up and walked out.

At the end of the performance there were cheers for the singers, quite rightly but there was a large amount of booing when the production team came on stage.

I have been to over 400 opera performances at the Garden, but I have never witnessed what I heard and saw tonight.

Most regular opera goers know that Kaspar Holten (Royal Opera artistic director) is not up to much, but I am astonished that Tony Pappano allowed this shameful production to go on in this form. Has he lost all artistic morals?

This is going out live at cinemas on Sunday afternoon. If the booing happens then the world is going to know about it!!


william tell


Holten issued a statement, saying he’s sorry. But not very:

‘The production includes a scene which puts the spotlight on the brutal reality of women being abused during war time, and sexual violence being a tragic fact of war. The production intends to make it an uncomfortable scene, just as there are several upsetting and violent scenes in Rossini’s score. We are sorry if some people have found this distressing.’

Here’s the production trailer:

Here’s Michael Roddy’s report on Reuters.

And here’s a further eyewitness account, sent to Slipped Disc by ‘Opera Spy’:

Prolonged booing and catcalls, normally reserved for an offending performer’s curtain call, erupted mid-performance at the Royal OperaHouse last evening, at one point seeming likely to stop the show or even start a fight. However, singers and orchestra ploughed through the interruption regardless, only for it to resume vociferously as the production team joined the cast lineup at the end. One habitué said it was the worst such demonstration of disapproval he had seen in 56 years of opera going. The occasion was a controversial updated (1950s) staging of Rossini’s Guillaume (William) Tell, one of the works the 19th-century Italian composer wrote to a French text for a Parisian commission. The ballet sequences which Paris opera audiences demanded in those days were replaced in this version by mimed scenes, one involving a fully nude rape victim, and it was this which provoked the sudden outburst last night. Subsequent trickles of shouted objection included “shame on you, Tony” for the conductor, a loud boredom snore, “big deal, they moved” for a static chorus and “sit down!” for a soloist obliged to try to sing
while lying on a table on his side. Rival factions yelled “bad behaviour” and “shut up or get out!” Covent Garden used to be such a genteel place.

UPDATE: First review here.


  • Angela Rodion says:

    Holten’s engagement by the Royal Opera House has always been a mystery to me. Surely when he and Pappano were presented with the “konzept” they had the chance to voice their concerns to the director? Or does Holten believe it is the business of the Royal Opera to promote “clever” Eurotrash productions? I’ve always thought Holten was out of his depth at Covent Garden, just as the late Ross Stretton was as the Artistic Director of The Royal Ballet.

    • Flossie says:

      Having seen the Dress Rehearsal of this Production, the “koncept” makes total sense. The booers in the audience obviously dislike drama in opera which is as thought-provoking and real as they’d be faced with in straight theatre. Pappano and Holten’s artistic credentials are of the highest order. I find this slagging-off of Kasper Holten very disturbing; I love his carefully thought-through, psychologically gripping ROH “Don Giovanni” and his recent “Krol Roger” was fantastic. Just because a few rude, boorish audience members boo and heckle (this is rude to the performers and makes it more difficult to carry on – can’t they reserve it until the curtain call?) this doesn’t mean that a production is crap but merely that a few clearly didn’t like it. It would be an interesting to find out whst sort of production would have pleased the booers – I suspect it would be a very dull, safe one which I’d rather not see.

      • Angela Rodion says:

        I thought the production of Don Giovanni was simply a mess and the singing exceedingly mediocre for a major house that Covent Garden claims to be. Of course, it may simply be a reflection of the standards world wide in opera today, but I do expect better from the Royal Opera.

        • pooroperaman says:

          The singing was a lot better the first time round, when they also didn’t cut the final ensemble – that was the really inexcusable thing this time.

          • Olassus says:

            What! Pappano cut the final chorus? Surely not.

            Why doesn’t the stupid Royal Opera state clearly what it is performing? A critical edition has existed for 20 years with all the numbers and options laid out.

            Guillaume Tell, a masterpiece, is +/- 235 minutes long with two wonderful extended dance sequences in Acts I and III.

          • pooroperaman says:

            I meant the final ensemble of ‘Don Giovanni’. The final chorus of ‘Tell’ was there last night, although there were other cuts earlier in the piece.

          • Sam McElroy says:

            The final chorus was an addition that Mozart never wanted, and was only added to appease the popular preference for happy endings. He begins and ends in his foreboding D minor, the opera’s perfect conclusion being the descent to hell. The final, twee anticlimax of a major key return to the real world is always a let down, and only became common practice in the 20th century. Until then it was almost always cut, as per Mozart’s wishes.

  • Olassus says:

    Pappano also cuts the score badly. Why does he keep conducting it (2007, 2010, 2015) if he doesn’t believe in it?

  • Flossie says:

    Having seen, enjoyed and understood the General Rehearsal, I find reading about some of these reactions rather sad. The Producer was clearly aiming for real theatre and dramatic truth. The music-making from all singers and orchestra heightened the drama and could not have been bettered. Superb. People are not shocked by realism in straight theatre so why are they shocked when it appears in opera? The scene which was upsetting – and it was meant to be – after all war and occupation are horrific, I felt was perfectly fitting but over-long (it was filling a piece of ballet music which could also have been cut) but, brilliantly acted and staged, a gang rape is only implied. I understand that there is a reference to a rape early in the libretto. If this production is remembered only because of the reaction of some booers, then opera really is in a parlous state with no room to evolve, to grow in relevance as a dramatic art form, forever preserved in aspic. I was blown away by the production – do go and see it. Thought-provoking and ultimately good triumphs over evil – something really necessary for our times.

    • anon says:

      The very idea that something as traumatic as a rape can be “realistically” handled in an opera BALLET scene (the very definition of light hearteded nonsense), ironically undermines the director’s claim that it is supposed to be some sort of social commentary. This is worse than hashtag activism: “Throw in our five minutes of violence against women” and we’re good for the day? We’ve done our social justice? By doing what? reminding people that sexualized violence against women happens?

      This kind of superficial, shock-tactic treatment AT BEST trivializes sexualized violence against women and more likely contributes to the fetishization of it. We have enough rape culture in this day and age. Let’s not pretend having a naked woman mock-raped in a five-minute opera ballet scene somehow performs a social critique of it.

      • Gerhard says:

        Extremely well said! This is the whole problem with the claims of “relevance” in our Regietheater productions put in a nutshell.

        • Derek Castle says:

          Ì paid over 300 Euros to see Tannhäuser at Bayreuth set in a waste recycling factory.
          I know – stupid!

  • Robert says:

    If people pay good money to see something at The Royal Opera House and let’s face it – it really is expensive there – they expect something of high quality. Why should they be fobbed off with something that is utter crap. I have experienced this so many times there so now always wait for the reviews and reactions before even thinking of going. I will definitely not be going to this now. These are professionals and should be able to realize that something is not working and adjust it accordingly not carry on regardless. It is insulting to the paying public who expect better and whilst I am an enthusiastic supporter of this house and always used to try and attend everything each season, I just do not bother now as it is not worth it. I am so fed up with “concept” productions as well as “regie-theatre” – stop it and put on decent things.

  • Margaret says:

    I also saw the General Rehearsal. I thought the rape scene was in context. I don’t condone rape, but that is what happens in war situations even to this day. At the rehearsal there was not a hint of a boo, and it was well received. The music is wonderful. I once saw an amateur production of Alfie where the woman having an abortion stood at then front of the stage and screamed – no blood or nudity, but a man in the audience fainted! Most of the worst pictures are in the mind of the watchers.

    • Angela Rodion says:

      I can’t think of anything more foolish than to boo at a dress rehearsal. One is, technically, a guest of the theatre’s management, and even a dress rehearsal is deemed a work in progress.

  • pooroperaman says:

    As far as I could tell, the problem was not the rape per se, but that it was the last in a long line of terribly lazy production cliches – evil Nazis, anyone? – none of which took the piece remotely seriously.

    By the middle of Act Three – more than three hours into the production – the intelligence of the audience had been insulted quite enough. The production is also extremely dull to look at and has numerous examples of incompetent stagecraft, the stupidest of which is a bunch of said Nazis continuing to sing in their Act 4 chorus while lying dead on the floor.

  • Selim says:

    This is not a production by Kasper Holten, the stage director is Damiano Michieletto

    • Angela Rodion says:

      I, certainly, never said it was a Kasper Holten production, but as he is in charge of the artistic standards at the Royal Opera he (and Pappano) must bear some of the responsibility for the engagement of Mr Michieletto as well as letting the production go ahead. I don’t know why everyone seems so astonished that a Royal Opera production has been booed. I’ve been reliably informed that booing has happened at Covent Garden ever since the house re-opened after World War Two, with productions and singers getting booed. Any regular audience will only take so much. I was surprised to learn that the opening night of the ballet, “Anastasia.” was booed too.

    • pooroperaman says:

      Holten booked the director and Holten signed it off, just as he did with the dreadful Idomeneo, the dreadful Rusalka, the dreadful Maria Stuarda and the dreadful Manon Lescaut. These productions are entirely his vision, even if he hasn’t actually directed them himself.

  • Tim Moorey says:

    During the soldiers and rape scene, there were shouts of “rubbish” from the balcony where we were sitting, followed by loud booing. This was at its highest in the curtain calls when it seemed to be pretty universal from all parts of the house.
    I think some of this was probably reflecting widespread dissatisfaction with the production from the beginning. Not so with the singers nor the orchestral playing, both of which were fine but the production and an overlong opera (start 18.00, finish 22.30 with action at a slow pace) made for a very disappointing evening definitely not worth the expensive outlay.

  • william osborne says:

    During the Bosnian War, and the Bosnian genocide, systematic mass rape was used as a weapon of genocide. Estimates of the total number of women raped during the war range from 12,000 to 50,000. The U.N. puts the number at 20,000. Gang rape and sexual enslavement were common.

    The Council of Europe estimates that more than 25,000 women are raped annually in the war torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Liberia a Médecins Sans Frontières clinic sees more than 70 patients monthly who have been raped. Of these 80% are less than 18, and 40% of those are under the age of 12. The youngest survivor was 21 months old.

    How can we as a global society change the discourse and take sexual violence out of conflict? What role can the arts and artists play?

    • Toby says:

      “How can we as a global society change the discourse and take sexual violence out of conflict? What role can the arts and artists play?”

      Art and artists can play no role at all. A CG production means all will in the future mean f*** all for the raped women around the globe – unless ISIL, Boko Haram and others are reading Slipped Disc and get deeply moved. But of course the directors can feel like they’re taking a part of a bigger whole, which I suspect is the motivation here.

    • Angela Rodion says:

      Mr Osborne, I am as disturbed as you are by these appalling facts and statistics, but sadly it has always been the situation in wars. Look at the Soviet Army in Berlin and Vienna in 1945. But, and it is a big BUT, what place, or real relevance, do these thing have in a Rossini opera-seria? Audiences do not care to be lectured and I don’t blame the audience at Covent Garden for voicing its disapproval on this occasion. Holten will be delighted at the publicity the production has garnered, and very probably (and sadly) he is already negotiating Mr Michieletto’s early return to Covent Garden.

    • Gerhard says:

      Why not stage a mock rape somewhere in an opera? This should tell those vilains. Duty fulfilled!

    • william osborne says:

      There are 107 films about rape. Some are quite famous. And some have played an important role in addressing the issues and raising consciousness in ways that have been very useful. One example was “Extremities” (1986) starring Farrah Fawcett. It was adapted from the 1982 off-Broadway play of the same name by William Mastrosimone.

      The bulky, antiquated repertoire of opera can’t effectively address these issues, and contemporary composers seem unable to write operas that enter the mainstream at all. Perhaps this is another reason opera has become largely a dead art form sitting socially mute on the margins of society. We need to fundamentally rethink what music theater should be in the 21st century.

    • pooroperaman says:

      Come on. They’re not trying to stop rape, they’re using it to titillate the audience (well, they failed there) and to put their stamp on the opera.

      The actress wasn’t actually raped, one should point out. The only victim of violation last night was Rossini.

      • william osborne says:

        The staging was set in Bosnia. The obvious intention was to reflect the horrific events of that war.

        • pooroperaman says:

          If it was set in Bosnia, why were there so many comedy Nazis wandering around? In any case, the opera is about Switzerland, as the subtitles kept pointing out.

        • J. says:

          What if the production was about Cuba, Mr. Osborne? Or the gulags. Or Mao’s famine?

  • DLowe says:

    I think the word is sensationalist. Everyone knows rape happens in these dreadful conflicts. It’s vile. I don’t expect to see it in an opera production. It’s unnecessary and gratuitous. I sympathise with the performers, but I also sympathise with the audience. They’re paying large sums; they have a right to express their disgust. As for Holten…his Krol Roger, which I didn’t see personally, but saw images of, looked brilliant. The rest of his stuff is pretentious tosh. You can be innovative and clever without producing the likes of this William Tell, or Holten’s Don Giovanni.

  • The Rat says:

    I have not seen this production but had I spent good money to attend I would have been very annoyed if my enjoyment had been disrupted by audience members who really ought to be better behaved. What is wrong with realism on the opera stage? We accept it in other art forms so why not in opera?

  • Nicholas Derek says:

    Covent Garden has witnessed sustained booking before. I can recall the Ponnelle/Mehta Aida in the 1980s when lack of funds resulted in a Grand March that was played as a concert piece leading to sustain cries of “Rubbish!” With Pavarotti off form and loudly booed and Ricciarelli consistently well under the note, the audience reaction was perfectly understandable. Pavarotti cancelled the second performance. By the third, the relief on his face once he had completed Celeste Aida without problems was obvious. Yet the production as a whole was dire, only redeemed by the singing of Paata Burchuladze.

    • pooroperaman says:

      ‘sustained booking’? There won’t be much more of that if we keep getting this sort of production.

  • Christopher says:

    I couldn’t have said it better. Beautifully written and explained what so many of us think.

  • John says:

    this is a bit sad but you can pretty much guarantee this opera will now sell out (if not already)

    I suspect they will tone things down a bit now though given the audience reaction which I think is a shame as I think everyone should have the right to judge the original uncensored ‘distressing scenes’ for themselves

  • Kate says:

    Sounds like audiences are reverting back in time to the Shakespearean era of audience interaction. Bring on the rotten fruit and vegetables 🙂

  • La Donna del Largo says:

    I can think of at least one thing more foolish than booing at a dress rehearsal: commenting on a theatrical production one has not seen.

  • Brent Straughan says:

    La Scala, look out!

  • Bill Worley says:

    This was another in a long line of dreadful and disgusting productions many of which have been listed above Don Giovanni, Manon Lescaut, Maria Stuarda, Rusalka and Idomeneo. The amount of money we are expected to fork out for a ticket gives us the right to boo and demonstrate if we don’t like it. I also resent the amount of money wasted on these productions which will probably never be revived.

  • Tony Glenville says:

    I was also at the full dress on Friday and there was certainly one loud boo! However what I want to ask is this – in the light of the huge seeming dis satisfaction of the regular Covent Garden audiences with almost all new productions under the current administration, and the massive cuts for ENO perhaps it is time to look at ROH and its audience and Arts Council support? Like The Met it seems the audience is, for want of a better word, “conservative” in its approach to opera production and a beautiful night out. I would finally question how many more nights at the opera are going to be created around basically the same concept? There seems a tragic dearth of originality in opera production.

    • michael dempsey says:

      A realistic war scene in an opera! Shock, horror. Chocolate box jollies obviously not available. We have realistic, theatrical scenes at the Coliseum all the time and nobody gets this worked up. From what I read, the scene may have been at odds with the accompanying ballet music but the remedy for that is to decline to applaud the Director. IMHO it is never justified to boo an artist who has done his best to give life to a work for a modern audience. And to do so whilst the music is playing? Words fail me.,

  • Richard says:

    I have seen this production and had spent good money to attend, so I was very annoyed that my enjoyment was disrupted by the rubbish that was taking place on stage. It started badly and got worse as the evening progressed. I think I understood the director’s concept, but it was so poorly thought through. As to the rape scene, it offended mainly because it went on too long and was set in complete contradiction to the jolly ballet music that Rossini provided.

  • F.J.BECK says:

    I’ve just listened to the opera on bbc iplayer and it sounded great. I’m very glad that I missed the cinema release however. William Tell should be a lavish spectacle of costumes and scenery as befits the music. not some excuse for a director who thinks he can improve on Rossini by laying on the symbolism with a trowel.. This is not Salome ,Electra or Ibsen. Anyone who can present a rape scene during that superb ballet music is obviously incapable of understanding the music.

  • Gabriele says:

    My daughter sang the Countess of Helfenstein in Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler”at the Opéra Bastille in 2010, directed by Christoph Eschenbach, stage director Oliver Py.. During a peasant’s revolt, the Countess is brought out by force from her castle( in a splendid Medieval costume), the peasants pul her dress up, push her on the floor, and she is “mass raped”. This happened towards the back of the stage, not quite in front. It was the premiere and the French public applauded enthusiastically at the end,nobody booed, nobody seemed to mind this scene. Are the French more “relaxed” about such themes?