Evelyn Lear: ‘Why should the audience be tortured’

Evelyn Lear: ‘Why should the audience be tortured’


norman lebrecht

August 31, 2015

The next in our series of Bruce Duffie interviews is with the first American soprano to break into the European new-music scene. She has some fabulous things to say about technique … and about concerthall formality:

evelyn lear lulu

‘When you go to these lieder recitals and the soprano or the tenor or the baritone tucks his hands under his chest and sings just to himself and everybody’s supposed to be quiet, and God forbid you should applaud between numbers, I think that’s horrible.  I hate that.  I hate any kind of pretension, but that’s me.  I hate any kind of thing that is formalized.  I think art is entertainment and entertainment should be art.  That’s what it’s about!  It’s communication and love being the vessel of what the composer intended, rolling it out across the stage to the audience to have them enjoy it!  Why should they be tortured?’

Read the full interview here.


  • John Borstlap says:

    Silly lady. When she would sing a Schubert or a Bernstein song, would she keep to the fomalized structure of bars? And tone pitches? Merely messing-around would NOT be entertainment.

    There are always people who think that when nothing spectacular can be seen on the outside, nothing happens on the inside. A very quiet audience listening to performers who focus on their rendering of the music can look like a comatized gathering, but it can as well covering an intense performing-and-listening experience.

  • James McCarty says:

    Bravo, John.

  • V.Lind says:

    I heard some similar nonsense on the CBC yesterday morning (The Sunday Edition), basically suggesting that the behaviour of regular concert-goers casts a terrorising spell on new attendees. Apparently the fact that the regulars do not get up and dance through the Beethoven Seventh or anything else with a good ‘beat’ is enough to put off those in a hall for the first time.

  • Patrick says:

    The neolithic right-wingers are out in force today. Too bad their knowledge of the history of ‘classical’ performance history (in which 18/19th century audiences did pretty much as they pleased), and which certainly justifies contemporary audience participation, is so lacking.

    So to Evelyn, I say ‘You go, girl!’

    • Meal says:

      Primarily, it is not the history but the music itself which changed the audiences’ behavior. There was good reason that composers of baroque opera had written arias in da capo style. The audience did not draw so much attention to the music. One should be aware that e. g. baroque operas often took twice as long as the are usually performed today (repeating story and music at least once). Therefore, it was even not necassary to listen quiet and seated. While music changed also the audience had to adapt. Although I sometimes like to dance to Beethoven’s symphonies and concertos I do so only when I am alone at home but never in the concert hall (I have to admit that I sometimes envy the conductor). This is part of the respect to everybody else in the audience and to the composer, too. It was Beethoven who wanted the audience to be quiet and seated. As a neolithic member of the audience I try to follow the intentions of the composer. Indeed, if I listen to contemporary music my behaviour might change. To give an example: I am crossing around the room while listening and watching to Stockhausen’s HOCHZEITEN (from Sonntag aus LICHT). It is the respect to the music, to the composer and to the fellow human beings which should guide our conduct (call it neotlithic … 😉 ).

      • John Borstlap says:

        Since the 18th century, indeed much has improved to the better. But that is not clear to everybody. If people want to dance and make noise, they should go to entertainment locations where such behavior is expected and is part of the fun. Activities have their appropriate locations… we don’t want our potty training go waste and do what we do in the smallest room of the house in the living room in front of visitors.

    • Furzwängler says:

      Wasn’t it Liszt who, when he gave a recital in St. Petersburg in the 1840s which was attended by Tsar Nicholas I, who continued to talk loudly after Liszt had begun a piece, stopped playing and famously said words to the effect that “When the Tsar speaks, even Music herself must fall silent”?

      And he got away with it too – and the Tsar shut up.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Also the opposite happens. When Eric Satie introduced his ‘Musique d’ameublement’ – the forerunner of muzak – at a concert, when this ‘music’ was softly and monotonously played in the interval in the foyer by a small ensemble, people stopped talking and began to listen. Satie then walked around agitated, insisting: ‘Do talk! Do drink your wine! Don’t listen!’

  • Jacque says:

    In today’s oversexualised music entertainment industry, when half of the “ladies” and “gentlemen” can’t produce any decent tone pitch without a heavy mastering in studios, it was a question of time, when the new and younger audiences will start to demand it also from the classical musicians. Not wanting to insult the fans of Mileys, Gagas, Kanyes and other Kardashians, but most of the classical musicians are looking for, and offering a much deeper musical insight, than nipples and buttocks of their pop music counterparts.

  • V.Lind says:

    I don’t mind if people applaud between movements — there’s a spontaneity to that. And clearly some people do not know it’s not usual these days, so that’s innocent. Otherwise, I am entirely with John Borstlap on this, whatever his politics. It is a matter of manners, and if asking for a little common courtesy makes me a neolithic right-winger (who votes straight left), then I wonder what it makes the neanderthals incapable of providing it.

  • SVM says:

    For me, a noisy audience-member *is* torture. Like most events that involve a gathering of a large number of people, most of whom have spent much time and money on travel and tickets, concerts are *necessarily* ‘formalized’. The paramount importance of not disturbing the atmosphere may cause some discomfort to some people some of the time, but it is for the greater good.

    As for those who wish to impose historically informed audience etiquette on us, they are to be reminded that historical authenticity /ipso facto/ is no substitute for intelligence (I say this without prejudice to the potential of historical context to elucidate, but not dictate, intelligent deliberation).[1] They are also reminded that mobile telephones, radios, and cars did not exist in the eighteenth century, so by the same logic they should be arguing against radio broadcasts, and arguing for audience-members to leave telephones at home and arrive in horse-drawn carriages, with “The Nobility and Gentry […] to order their Coachmen to set them down […] at the door in Hanover Street with their Horses Heads towards Grosvenor Square, the Door in the Square being for Ladies [Sedan] Chairs only”.[2]

    With the widespread availability of recordings in the present day, it is more important than ever that a live performance be something special — this can be achieved only when audiences do not disrupt the music (with the possible exception of modest laughter where it is manifestly appropriate, for example in certain passages of Haydn).[3]

    Having lambasted Lear’s views on concert etiquette, I should like to add that I agree with her concerns (as expressed later in the same interview) about the impact of the recording industry on live performance.

    [1] http://standpointmag.co.uk/node/5774/full

    [2] https://musicb3.wordpress.com/2011/12/16/bygone-concert-venues-no-2-hanover-square-rooms-i/

    [3] http://www.theguardian.com/music/2007/apr/10/classicalmusicandopera.comment1

    : in his speech to the ISM, Peter Maxwell Davies recalls that “When Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon, Harrison Birtwistle and I [Davies] were students in Manchester, we were summoned all together to the Principal’s office in college, the day after a Manchester Chamber Concerts Society evening had finished with a very funny Haydn finale. It had been impossible not to smile, and even laugh, discreetly.”

    • SVM says:

      One very practical point: besides being detrimental to the musical flow, applause between movements also incites the stewards to admit latecomers at that point, the result being that audience-members are made to endure said latecomers shuffling past noisily when heading for their seats after the subsequent movement has commenced (I hasten to add that, on occasions when I have been late, I never pressure the stewards to let me in at an inappropriate time, unlike some other latecomers, and I tend to occupy the second available seat — leaving the first for the next latecomer — instead of looking for my actual seat). Unless a steward were musically trained and familiar with the work (and many are not, to be honest), how is he/she able to know if/when to admit latecomers in such a manner that does not result in such disruption.

  • Janis says:

    I think we’ve just answered the question of why attendance is declining and most people like to listen to recordings. Who the hell would want to be in a room full of such snippy people as there are in this thread? Jeez. So many people who despise having to be even vaguely reminded of the existence of others — someone comes in a bit late and the world ends, even when the “disruption” of their presence might be covered by applause. My GOD, that horrible person TOUCHED MY PANT LEG when they brushed past, I’ve been assaulted! Someone CLAPPED and reminded me that I wasn’t completely alone in my own living room! The nerve! I heard someone BREATHE behind me, can you believe it?

    Seriously, I do think this answers the question of why attendance isn’t huge at most classical music events. The fans are a bunch of antisocials who hate being reminded that other people exist. Either they are all consequently staying home to keep from interacting with the rest of the world, or there is actually a concert hall someplace half-full of these sorts who are scaring the rest of the world away.

    Like someone else above said, there is a big difference between being shoved to the floor and stomped on and simply having to endure someone moving past you to get to their seat or clearing their throat after the first movement. Damn, I’m a fan of this music and I never want to be stuck in a room full of you people — including the concert hall.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It would be easy to pin this comment down with a humiliating pun, but more important is the advise to the author to consider this: music lovers want to HEAR the WORK being performed. A little bit of rustling will never be a problem, but Mrs Lear was really going over the mark with her ‘entertainment’ complaint. Classical music is NOT entrtainment but requires focussed and concentrated listening – most of the time, apart from some Tchaikovsky finales maybe, but generally: there is a lot happening in a classical piece. For that very reason, classical audiences that are a bit more sophisticated than gorillas, don’t like distractions, because they bought a ticket (often expensive), parked their car (often quite a challenge), found a baby sitter or fetched grandma for the children (after extensive deliberations and phone calls), freshed-up and dressed for the occasion (because it’s something different from going to the zoo), found their places, read the programme notes, and then they want to be able to really experience what is on offer. What could possibly be wrong with that?

    • V.Lind says:

      Oh, for heaven’s sake. Where do you live that a simple request for courtesy is “snippy’? All that is required to attend a classical concert is that you sit down and shut up. If that’s beyond your capacity, then by all means stay away. Or go to the sing-along Sound of Music, if you can’t be quiet for half an hour at a time.

  • Emil Chudnovsky says:

    For all those kvetching about “neolithic”, “snippy” audience members (by the way, in going for the trifecta of cliche invective you forgot “stuffy”, “pompous”, “elitist”, “snobby” and, of course, “old”): do you permissive, liberated folks enjoy watching a movie in a movie theater where people are talking and yelling at the screen?

    Classical music isn’t having issues because people who love it want it not ruined. It’s dying because the zeitgeist trends towards infinitesimal attention spans, self-absorption, entitlement and having been infused with the notion that intelligence is too exclusive. That being stupid is friendly and egalitarian. And, as classical does, alas! demand both attention and mental focus, it doesn’t fit the infallible desires of the times.

    But you know why else it has issues? Because apologists reaching for tried-and-failed solutions, those who profess to love the music while demonstrating their inability to actually hear or understand it, go to war on behalf of watering it down, dumbing it down and, at all costs, trying to obscure its actual refined nature. So eager to please that they’ll dress up Audrey Hepburn as Kim Kardashian or Miley Cyrus, lest she be perceived in her normal state as being too unapproachable, too aristocratic, too not-common-man.

    You don’t save villages by destroying them, folks.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Well said.

      The ‘classical music world’ has, since it escaped the confines of nobility and church, gradually increased in size and numbers, together with its repertoire, and in the last century under the influence of social awareness it was felt that it should be accessible to all. It may be not too bad if it is shrinking again to a size, more appropriate to the art form’s nature, when only the real music lovers form a worthwhile audience.

      It is no use to try to interest chimps into reading a book or visit a museum, let alone to enjoy a Mahler symphony.

      Classical music belongs to the heart of Western cultural identity, but that does not mean that every Westerner has to like it.

  • El Grillo says:

    EL would have done well to consider that what was being expressed in Lulu was the breakdown of society, exactly a reaction to the idea that music is nothing but entertaining and life an indulgence. And going to the simple presence of a lieder recital is another reaction. Edith Wharton’s writings also express this in a different way than Lulu.

    But then with EL it’s a perfect fit, consequently, the same as putting Bartoli’s spiky verve or Fleming’s maraschino smile in an opera about the superficiality of what kind of effect works for marketing production (or productions). How to become a commodity.

    It’s also true that it’s a good idea for composers to study voice, but this also involves the subtlety of seeing the logic of how the notes came together, and this goes beyond analyzing whether they are dissonant, and then manipulating the vocal muscles. What really happens is more involuntary than that. And the subtlety there takes care everything is natural, and there’s no strain to the voice.

    There’s something else there, and that’s way beyond just being entertaining or not.

    • John Borstlap says:

      All very true! The best music for the voice is the music that has been imagined by the composer beforehand as a voice… Music that breathes as the voice breathes.

  • Peter Freeman says:

    I think V. Lind’s last post, particularly its third sentence, sums up neatly the case for the defence of good concert etiquette. Why is it such a tall order for anyone to just “sit and be” for the duration of a piece of music? This has only become an issue comparatively recently, in our era of lamentably near-ubiquitous noise pollution by the curse of intrusive piped music. Some people are simply incapable of just listening, ie concentrating all mental faculties on what is being heard, while doing nothing else. They regard music as something to be talked over while performing all manner of physical activities, and not itself deserving of their full attention. This boils down to education, or self-education. Arriving in the concert hall, do they not notice that most others sit still and listen silently? When, on occasion, chattering has disturbed a concert or opera and I have turned round to frown, if the culprit later becomes verbally bellicose, my stock response is: “We have paid to hear the music; not your conversation”.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I once made the humiliating mistake to see a ballet performance at the Palais Garnier in Paris, the famous opera building, in summer time, when the hall was filled to the brim with tourists, who obviously came to chat with each other with the accompaniment of a Tchaikovsky ballet.

  • Peter Callahan says:

    I cannot comment on what she was like as an artist. I admire her Lulu quite a bit and find that it’s often criticized somewhat inexplicably. She was also a fine Pamina and I agree with what she says about audience applause. Elsewhere, however she comes off as a very unpleasant woman in this interview. All she does is complain and criticize conductors, composers, directors, singers, and students. She doesn’t seem to have a kind word to say about anything except for a small handful of composers, most of whom were second rate at best. And considering how quickly her voice went, I find it ironic that she is so critical of up-an coming singers.