Coughing, cell phones, Twitter and other taboos of opera-going

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At a recent performance of “Tristan und Isolde” in Dallas, legendary tenor Jon Vickers stopped singing to yell at a coughing member of the audience, “Shut up with your damned coughing!” — and, amazingly, the incident is captured for posterity on audio.

The incidence of audience members making like Violetta in “La Traviata” (she dies noisily of consumption, as if you didn’t know) is not, of course, restricted to Texas. Coughing can be such an irritant at Washington National Opera performances that Michael Solomon, the opera’s public relations director, joked recently that the Kennedy Center should start offering free flu shots to members of the audience.

It’s not just that the coughing distracts both audience and artist: Singers consider it a potential health hazard that could impair, if not that performance, the next one. “Nothing scares a singer more than someone with a cold, cough or flu,” said Michelle Krisel, general director of the Ash Lawn Opera in Charlottesville, Va., and longtime assistant to Placido Domingo during the years when the legendary tenor guided the WNO.

English actor Sir Ralph Richardson once remarked disparagingly of his profession, “Acting is merely the art of keeping a large group of people from coughing.”

A lot has been written and said about the phenomenon of people with otherwise clear larynxes who feel the urge to cough once seated in a theater, opera house or concert hall.

Julia Mintzer (right), at the Washington National Opera with Shantelle Przybylo and James Shaffran, says, "People may not be able to control the coughing, but they can turn off their cellphones." (American Opera Initiative)

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Julia Mintzer (right), at the Washington National Opera with Shantelle Przybylo and ... more >

There clearly has been a downward shift in audience etiquette. One theory is that television watching in the home has undermined the habit of silence during a performance. Further damage has been done by the spread of cellphones and the resulting demise of the concept of being out of contact.

The idea of flu shots may be whimsical, but people like Mr. Solomon and Ms. Krisel connected with the performing arts say that it’s good manners and good sense for anyone nursing a cold to stay away from an opera, concert or theater performance. That can be a hard decision, but the ticket often can be changed.

As for people who cough without the flu — a good supply of throat lozenges would go a long way toward reducing the urge to cough during a performance.

For mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer, who is scheduled to sing the role of Clotilde in the WNO’s production of Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma” in March, the worst distraction is not coughing but the sudden noise of a ringing cellphone. At the Kennedy Center, the WNO is the only company that reminds the audience before every performance that cellphones and pagers should be switched off, and cameras and recording devices should not be used.

“People may not be able to control the coughing, but they can turn off their cellphones,” says Miss Mintzer. “After all, you paid to hear the opera. Why ruin it with a cellphone?”

The newer menace is Twitter, which makes no noise, but the glow from the device can be distracting to members of the audience. Mr. Solomon says WNO ushers have instructions, using their discretion about the disturbance that it would cause, to ask anyone found tweeting to save messaging for the intermission.

At least tweeting is unlikely to catch the eye of artists on the stage. Bright spotlights on the actors make the audience invisible — except for people coming in late to sit in the front rows. Hence the WNO does not allow late seating anywhere: Anyone arriving after the curtain has gone up waits in the lobby and watches on monitors until the end of the act.

The conductor, however, can see the front-row seats by turning to the side. A year ago, New York Philharmonic maestro Alan Gilbert halted a performance when a cellphone in the front row broke into an unwanted accompaniment of Mahler’s Symphony No 9. Mr. Gilbert turned around and gave the owner a piece of his mind. It was the phone that rang around the world, as the media picked up the incident.

Mr. Solomon says cellphones have sounded during opera performances in the District but have not resulted in offstage dramas.

In other respects, he says, Washington audiences are generally generous toward artists. “Singers are very much into the Washington Opera,” he says. “They feel Washington is a very safe place to come and sing.”

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