At the end of Carmen on opening night we had not only a standing ovation but applause that became unusually metronomic, as the entire audience expressed its appreciation by falling into a single rhythm (most likely in time to the beat of the Toreador’s song); and this after an excoriating final duet between Carmen and Don José which led to Carmen’s fateful demise. The clapping seemed almost festive! The only time I have heard such a thing is in the extraverted opera theatres of Spain or Italy - or during performances of the ever-popular ‘Redetzky March’ at New Year’s Eve concerts.
Which got me thinking about the importance of (and the unpredictability of) the audience at every performance - the importance of not just its size but its spirit. I think it was the journalist, Deborah Jones, who some years ago commented that Australian audiences, while often enthusiastic, show a marked reluctance to get to their feet. We have become masters of the ‘sitting ovation,’ she said. Why so? Is it our emotionally inhibited up-bringing or our cultural diffidence? Whatever the reason, we should not underestimate the importance of active audience engagement to a performer or a performance.
Personally, I don’t care if anyone claps in the ‘wrong’ place – between movements, as it were. (Though it is a bug-bear of mine that many audience members feel they have to rush to applause while the delicate magic of a rare phrase or mood needs to complete itself in suspenseful silence.) Frankly, the more expressive an audience the better in my book. When I visit our artists back stage after a particularly moving or inspiring performance what I frequently hear from a singer or conductor is the involuntary exclamation ‘great audience tonight!’ And this is because it takes a great audience to make a great performance. In live theatre the audience is essentially part of the mix and its response - its subtle, collective response made up of hundreds, even thousands of individuals - in turn inspires performers who in turn find more to inspire the audience and so it goes…. A virtuous circle, I guess you could call it, which provides our most thrilling nights in the theatre. This – the subtle, energetic interaction between audience and performer and performer and audience - essentially creates the mainspring magic of live performance. It is also why the thrill of live performance can never be substituted, no matter how exemplary the mimetic qualities of the highest of high definition DVDs, telecasts or cinema-casts.
We are used to a footballer or tennis player exclaiming after an exhilarating match: ‘what a great crowd, you got me over the line; I couldn’t have done it without you!’ Well, take it from my back stage conversations with wired performers after a show, an audience makes as radical a difference to the result in the theatre as it does to the result of a football match. If we find ourselves enraptured, or, it has to be said, we find ourselves disappointed, we shouldn’t be too polite about expressing our response - because we too are an essential part of each performance.