- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

I vividly recall as a young girl seeing “The Nutcracker” for the first time.

It’s not the elegant dancing, the luminous costumes or the indelible music that I remember best, though. No, it’s the increasing warmth I felt in my face when I realized my father was sound asleep next to me.

That was the first time I sat beside a man who had fallen asleep during a performance — but hardly the last.

Women have gotten men to open up the job market, share the housework and jointly raise the children — but we haven’t managed to stop them from nodding off at the ballet or opera.

Is this one battle of the sexes destined to continue?

Scott Barton says he hasn’t noticed men nod off more than women. “But it sounds like it should be true,” says Mr. Barton, who runs internship programs at an Arlington nonprofit. He “sheepishly” admits to falling asleep himself — even though he likes “big symphonic works” performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.

“I failed to get enough sleep in advance, and I couldn’t help it,” he explains. “I would choose to stay awake if I could, but the body doesn’t work that way.”

At least he feels embarrassed about it. “First of all, it’s disrespectful to the performers,” he says. “Second, I bought the tickets because I genuinely wanted to see the performance, so I was disappointed in myself for not paying attention.”

One D.C. lawyer who has dozed off a couple of times at the opera and at several symphonies and piano recitals claims to be unashamed of it — even if he did request anonymity. “I don’t think it was remarked upon, and I don’t believe I snored,” he says.

Besides, he sometimes travels to London for the opera — and jet lag can happen to anyone, right?

And another thing: “I close my eyes to listen to music, which doesn’t help. Particularly when accompanied by baroque or early-classical music, a warm theater can be rather soporific.” Still, the lawyer, who calls hockey a “performing art,” has never fallen asleep at a Capitals game.

Another anonymous lawyer says his girlfriend nods off at events “quite a bit.” “She does a lot of head-bobbing,” he reports. “Something about the lights going off just makes her system shut down.”

The anecdotal record, however, doesn’t seem to offer much support for the position that high-culture catnapping is a gender-neutral offense. In 15 years of attending performing arts events, Diane Fothergill Armstrong, a Calgary, Alberta, writer, has seen many fall asleep — mostly men. “After a hard day’s work, it is not surprising that the lilting tunes lull one to sleep, especially since there is ‘nothing to watch’ and you are sitting in comfy chairs in the dark,” she says. “It could also be that some men feel they are obliged to attend shows that do not interest them.” Sleep is “an escape mechanism” that transports them.

They can tune out the Tchaikovsky and fantasize about football.

She loves dance, but says, “The storybook ballets are a killer for [my husband] Glen, as most he has seen before and the choreography never changes.”

Like many women, she takes matters into her own hands. “I have often elbowed Glen when he nods off during a performance,” she reveals. “His breathing gets heavy, and I worry about it disturbing others.”

So Glen thought it rather amusing when she dozed off herself once. (She had seen the piece before, she maintains, and disliked the choreography.)

A dark, quiet room in which you’re forced to sit steadfastly still — can we really blame these tired men?

Even critics aren’t immune.

Jens F. Laurson, Classical WETA’s critic-at-large, has never had a woman accompany him to an event and nod off. He has dozed, though.

“As long as there is no loud snoring involved, I find it bemusing or — depending on the work — understandable, actually. Not the least because it happens to me, too, and more often than I should like to admit,” he says. “Attending concerts almost every day, and knowing many colleagues who, regardless of age but all male, are similarly afflicted, I reckon it’s something of an occupational hazard. Invariably, female seat-neighbors are slightly embarrassed, and gently nudge.”

He insists that “any performer who takes an exhausted patron nodding off as an insult is out of his or her mind. If anything, it should be a warning sign to the artist. I, for one, have never succumbed to mind fatigue during a great performance, no matter what condition I attended it in.”

Mr. Laurson offers the best suggestion yet to keep men awake — make classical concerts more like hockey games.

“Of course it doesn’t help that every last bit of classical music, no matter how trivial a piece of entertainment, is treated as if it were a Wagner opera that deserved hushed reverence throughout,” he observes. “If people had coffee and cake with Mozart serenades, or get to clutch a beer during Schumann sonatas, there’d be no nodding off.”

And if that still didn’t suffice, there’s always the violent melee option. What guy could sleep through a stage full of people in formal wear striking each other sharply with musical instruments?

• Kelly Jane Torrance can be reached at ktorrance@washingtontimes.com.

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