Podcast: Who boos? Let’s name and shame them

Podcast: Who boos? Let’s name and shame them


norman lebrecht

December 04, 2022

Seriously, what kind of person goes to the opera in order to boo?

And if you are going to boo, surely it should be directed at the faceless fixers who miscast the opera rather than the poor performers who are just doing their best?

On this week’s podcast, Rainer Hersch and I discuss the murky motivations behind opera booing.

And other things.

Like which country has the best World Cup anthem.

Listen here.

Pictured: rats at Bayreuth


  • Paul Dawson says:

    Booing at the curtain calls seems to me to be perfectly legitimate. It’s something of a nuclear option and should be deployed only in extremis.

    Booing during the performance is an utter disgrace and merits ejection and banning from the house.

  • A.L. says:

    It is amusing to observe the push that’s currently in vogue against booing. After all is said and done, the effort is nothing but representative of an art form on its last leg and corresponding general sense of despair. Vested interests in the mediocrities they are unleashing on the world stages have everything to gain from this attempt at narrowing freedom of speech, the better to protect their cash cows, should there be any left. All of it richly ironic, for reasons I will let others ponder about.

  • Alan says:

    One of your reviewers booed during the week…….

  • sammy says:

    I think booing should be extended to orchestras. The horn who flubbed a note? Boo. The flute who didn’t play the solo as well as the Berlin flute? Boo. The conductor? Being booed should be part of the job description.

    I pay $200, I expect to be entertained and be heard. And I expect management to provide at least one tomato in the price of the ticket.

    • Sam says:

      I agree – and booing poorly-played chamber music should become more acceptable as well. Hear a boring Haydn quartet or a pitchy Mendelssohn Octet? Let the performers have it. Enough of this delicate treatment!

    • Fred Funk says:

      Gonna need A LOT of tomatoes for the viola section.

    • Tanya Tintner says:

      You’re forgetting something. Orchestral musicians are human beings. (And horns, especially, are treacherous instruments.) They are not machines, and mishaps can happen. This is very different from booing a production, which – however much you may hate it – is not a “mishap”. Booing a player in front of their colleagues and an audience of hundreds or thousands merely attacks their self-confidence. humiliates them and/or adds to their stage fright at the next performance, none of which is desirable.
      If you want a perfect performance every time, buy a record.

  • Lothario Hunter says:

    “The next time you go to a concert and see a conductor who moves more than is necessary, and opens his mouth like a shark, you have to boo.” (Riccardo Muti)

  • william osborne says:

    This raises questions. If booing is forbidden at the opera, then why not other genres? Isn’t booing as old as theater itself going back to the ancient Greeks? What would a melodrama be without Oil Can Harry being booed when he enters the stage (which is similar to the Greek origins of booing? Don’t a number of opera stage directors hope to provoke and with boos being the expected response? Doesn’t live performance gains its tension and excitement based upon the expectations of satisfaction and transcendence, if not perfection? Do we kill that tension with our polite and veiled responses? Isn’t it a bit like the tension lost when a circus performer uses a net? Without booing do we weaken the artist’s ability to challenge audiences with meaningful provocations? What would happen to the peanut gallery at La Scala without its tradition of registering its disapproval of anything that varies from the “sacred norms” of the Italian national art? Don’t some singers consider tweaking the the Scala booers a measure of their artistic individuality?

    For me, the real problem at opera are the postured reactions of enthusiasm, the phony “bravis” used to signal cultural sophistication. I’d take an honest booer over them any day. In Germany, one can’t go to an opera performance without at least a ten minute long dog-and-pony show of applause for each singer, ensemble, the stage director, and the conductor along with a few bows for the orchestra–all dutifully choreographed. I’m thankful for it, since I can get out of the parking garage before the glut at the toll gate. For that reason, I always buy a seat at the end of an aisle so I can quickly slip out after giving reasonable applause.

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      Excellent post. Also, where would British panto be without booing? Some of the characters are there for that; it’s part of the fun.

      Does anyone go to the opera with the express intent of booing? At those average prices I think not. People go in the hope of a memorable experience. If they feel they have been short-changed, then an expression of that is reasonable at an appropriate moment and directed at the person or people in question. If not, it’s lobotomised, performative crut.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I’ve always found when watching a ballet that the orchestra and conductor get precious few accolades; these are reserved for the dancers.

  • Ms.Melody says:

    I don’t believe anyone goes to the opera “in order to boo”, just like the vast majority of people don’t get married in order to get divorced. The people who boo are members of the public who go to a well known opera house to see a beloved classic well sung, well played and well staged in that order. If instead, they are treated to a poorly sung, ugly, perverse, weird spectacle for the price of several hundred dollars or Euros, then they are within their rights to express their displeasure. If we start giving an “A” for effort to the “poor singers that are doing their best”, i.e soldiering on in spite of obvious problems, then the vocal standards are going to sink further, which is really not that far.

    • Anthony Sayer says:


    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      “If we start giving an “A” for effort to the “poor singers that are doing their best”, i.e soldiering on in spite of obvious problems, then the vocal standards are going to sink further, which is really not that far.”

      I thought you were referring to the modern education systems in all our countries. Instead of “we never close” or “cash only” it’s “prizes for everybody”.

  • Adam Stern says:

    As long as booing is under examination, when can we take a fresh look at standing ovations? These used to be saved for truly exceptional performances; now they’re de rigueur practically every time any performing body gets to the final cadence of a beloved warhorse. If we’re earnestly persuading booers to mind their manners, let’s also ask for a little more discretion on the parts of compulsive standers.

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      Also an extremely good point. These days, I get the feeling that standing ovations are meted out to anyone who hasn’t actually disappointed the audience.

    • Paul Brownsey says:

      Yes, indeed. The selfishness of standing-ovaters, blocking the view of those behind, is astonishing. On TheatreBoard someone recently made the gobsmnacking comment that they were sure disabled people in wheelchairs would hate to think people in front were reining in their eagerness to standing-ovate just for the sake of those in the wheelchairs. Yet on the same board posters are always claiming that theatre-going is spoiled for them by squads of drunk women chatting and waving their arms and singing along and whatnot. I posted the proposition that there is no moral difference between a squad of drunk woman spoiling your enjoyment by singing, arm-waving, and suchlike, and your blocking the view of the finale for the people behind you by leaping to your feet to applaud. No-one attempted an answer; someone said, sniffily, that if I couldn’t see the difference they weren’t going to enlighten me.

    • Fred Funk says:

      Adam, they have to pee at the end.

    • Hugo Preuß says:

      In the United States I have endured standing ovations after just about every performance I attended – to the point of it being almost meaningless.

      In Germany I have attended well over a thousand concerts and operas. Standing ovations occurred exactly four times in my personal experience. Once after an absolutely mesmerizing “Winterreise” by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau about 40 years ago. Once after the dress rehearsal of “Don Giovanni” in Salzburg, when a rather frail Karajan came on stage after a magnificent performance (and staging). Once on August 30, 1987 at the Hamburg State Opera (just checked my program…), when June Anderson did the mad scene in “Lucia di Lammermoor” like there was no tomorrow. And once at a recital with Renato Bruson. He was clearly indisposed (and it was announced so at the beginning), but he became better and better as the evening proceeded. He gave several encores, and then announced to the supportive and grateful (throughout the evening) audience “I will try the Rigoletto aria” – and boy, did he ever.

      Four standing ovations in almost 50 years of concerts. And every one is still vividly living in my memory.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Thank you, Adam, for bringing up this subject.
      I agree with most of the commenters here that booing during a performance is disgraceful.
      But I have grown weary at the inevitable standing ovations. They now occur after every performance!
      I have always remained seated during this egregious display of “look at me; I’m standing for an ovation; aren’t I brilliant!” unless the performance truly deserves a standing o.
      In those rare cases, I’m happy to stand and applaud, and even to yell “bravo”!

  • T Bone says:

    People should be held accountable for what they do. Why are should the arts be beyond reproach? Too many fragile egos?

    One of the most refreshing things about opera audiences are that they know their stuff and aren’t afraid to show when they are displeased. As long as it’s after the performance it’s all good by me. At least it’s honest.

    I’d like more booing in the orchestral world too instead of the stuffed shirt disingenuos ripple of applause the follows some of the excrement pumped our way.

    • SVM says:

      If orchestral performances were at risk of being booed, I wonder how many conductors would be so keen to take solo bows without acknowledging the orchestra… I can think of several concerts I have attended where the orchestral playing should have been good, but for the conductor’s badly judged tempi and pacing. I also wonder whether the risk of booing might encourage conductors to be more conservative in selecting individual players or sections of the orchestra to receive applause individually (and make it more professionally acceptable for a player who knows he/she has performed badly to decline the conductor’s invitation to stand individually)… I recall a /Missa Solemnis/ in which the violin solo was so atrociously out of tune as to warrant booing (and yet the conductor nonetheless invited the leader to accept applause individually, and the leader accepted this invitation).

      Orchestral concert-giving would benefit from the risk of booing.

  • Paul Brownsey says:

    “Seriously, what kind of person goes to the opera in order to boo?”

    No sensible person goes to the opera “in order to” boo. (Attention, please, to the meaning of “in order to”.)

    That doesn’t mean that booing may not be a permissible response on occasions. On a first night, at least, it’s often not just the performers who take bows but the director and set designer and others. If, say, Nabucco has just been performed as being about the fall of Boris Johnson, I don’t see that a rightly-directed boo might not be in order.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    Re; the picture, I worked on this production. At the initial dress rehearsal two of the pink rats in the same team were absent through illness, which led to an imbalance (5-3) in the second act line-up. We all saw how the team leader tried to encourage one of her brood to cross over to the other side to balance up the teams. He eventually, reluctantly, moped across. It was hilarious and got a spontaneous (sitting) ovation. Neuenfels’s production enraged the audience when he was present to receive their ire; after he left, the audience concentrated on expressing their satisfaction with the singers and conductor. Result: Lohengrin was extended one year (2015) to fill the gap left by the appalling Baumgarten Tannhäuser, unceremoniously dumped after four years of universal opprobrium. Even the singers couldn’t save this excremental heap of a production.

  • Dixie says:

    In the course of just over 50 years I have booed five times: Firstly when I heard for the first time Hans Beier; all those who have had the dubious honor of “experiencing” his voice can most likely understand my boo. My second boo was directed at Agnes Baltsa, not because she had sung poorly, which she had, but because she received many boos and returned the “compliment” by pointing to her head, a custom called “den Vogel zeigen”, which means that everyone else is crazy, not the “victim” of the boo. The third boo was directed at a certain Karin Ott after a devasting rendition of the “Martern-Arie” in Mozart’s Abduction from the Serail. (Worse for Ms. Ott than my boo was probably the audience reaction after Bassa Selim said: Wo nimmt sie den Mut her? (Where does she get her courage?) The fourth time was dedicated to a production of the Zigeunerbaron, which today would be considered “normal”, but at that time the entire audience booed, so I joined in because it was bad. And, last but not least, I could not contain myself during the Don Carlo (French version) in Vienna and let one Mr. Miles know what I thought. These five boos have one thing in common: THEY WERE ALL SPONTANEOUS. I have never attended any kind of performance with the intent beforehand to boo anyone! Five times in a little over 50 years – not so bad given the circumstances …

    • Adam Stern says:

      In nearly sixty years of concert-going, I have spontaneously emitted only one “boo”. It was at a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert led by a world-famous guest conductor, who subjected Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” — a piece I know and love intimately — to such distortions of tempo and pointlessly indulgent rubato that there were parts I almost didn’t recognize. The blatant disregard for the composer’s intent was infuriating, and my reaction was mild compared to the intensity of what I was feeling inside.

  • M McGrath says:

    Oh heavens, why the manufactured outrage combined with a holier-than-thou attitude? Booing (never kind but sometimes appropriate) is part of opera culture in parts of Europe. Claqueurs in Italy and France sometimes are remarkable in terms of the amount of noise they can produce! And the trashy production on the Bayreuth or Berlin stages surely merit a lkoud gag at least, as did some of the singers.

    If the ROH is experiencing booing, perhaps that is due to a combination of production values and simply bad music-making (the recent Alcina was such an all-round mediocrity!). When I saw the ROH Alcina, no one booed. But appreciable numbers left in the 1st and 2nd intervals (we left in the 2nd).

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    You mean people who disagree with you? Why aren’t they all civil, as I am; why don’t they just fall in line with me; why don’t they accept all the ‘right’ ideas as the true path to political enlightenment?

    That sort of thing. Booooooooooo

  • Jazz Singer says:

    I’d rather receive sincere jeers than polite cheers. A performer can typically interpret what sort of applause is being expressed. Often people do it because it’s, simply, what’s ingrained and expected, without any thought. At least, when someone boos, you know they were paying attention enough to really mean it. The performer got a real reaction, enticed emotion, and made (or failed to make) some sort of connection. Albeit not necessarily positive, in this case, isn’t that the hope of all artists?

  • Karden says:

    Resentment of booing and, in turn, the growing commonness of a standing ovation are probably both related to a culture where everyone is seen as deserving a prize.

    Anything goes, anything is good and cancel-cancel-cancel (or “off with their heads!”) when the approved narrative is being violated.

  • Novagerio says:

    “Let’s name and shame them” – is that satire? Or are you suggesting Stasi-methods?
    As has been mentioned before on these pages, booing is almost essential in Bayreuth. Audiences are normally in line ten years to get a ticket worth several hundred €€€. There is no chance a ticket-holder can guess the cast and the name of the production team ten years in advance.
    When the product is expensive and the result is trash, then loud public disapproval is more than justified.
    Or should one rather throw rotten tomatoes at Villa Wahnfried?

  • David says:

    I would gladly boo modern opera singers and those who let modern opera to become what it is now.

    Not so long ago went to the Tchaikovsky Swan Lake ballet. At some point one of the horns misplayed a tiny note. Everybody noticed, but it doesn’t matter, as it was a tiny accident in an amazing ballet, that was performed in a great manner.

    Now when it comes to the modern shouty, nazal vocalists – I just don’t go to operas no longer. I don’t expect good vocals there.

  • Player says:

    The infamous opening night of William Tell at Covent Garden a few years ago. The music had to stop because of the booing of the made-up rape scene on stage. Highly unusual but totally deserved. Shouts of “Shame on you, Tony!” from the stalls. Marvellous. Kaspar Holten got his arse kicked for allowing it, and Michieletto (otherwise rather a good director) had to make changes. Happy days!

    • Dixie says:

      I was there that night and found the booing completely in order. Afterwards I wrote a message to the Administration of Covent Garding saying that one should always imagine that the Queen would be in attendance … and produce accordingly. Those days are gone forever and ever and ever and ever …