“I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” – Jessica Rabbit
March 2011. Act 2 of Northern Ireland Opera’s Tosca takes place in Derry-Londonderry’s Guildhall. Rather than use the conventional stage and auditorium set-up, the director and designer have taken the decision to rotate the entire design (relative to the room) by 90 degrees, which means that the orchestra is offstage left, and there is no barrier between the audience and performers. Furthermore, to access the exits they would have to cross the stage. They are physically trapped in Scarpia’s lair, every bit as much as Tosca herself, and as close to the action as she is – so much so that several spectators end the act spattered with stage blood. About 30 minutes in, when Tosca has capitulated and revealed the whereabouts of the fugitive Angelotti, there is a hiatus while her lover Cavaradossi, bloodied and mutilated from torture, is carried in. As Scarpia, I stand mopping my brow and for the first time catch a glimpse of the faces in the audience. They are gawping, uncomfortable, traumatised. At the curtain call, on my appearance the audience spontaneously and unanimously lets out a deafening, emphatic, visceral boo. It is utterly exhilarating.
It’s a world away, of course, from getting booed in Paris or Milan because the crowd disapproves of your singing, or you being cast in the first place, or because you’ve failed to pay the appropriate respects to the right people. It was also a world away from the “pantomime” curtain call booing of the singer portraying the villain which occurs at some theatres. The next time I performed Tosca was in Glasgow; this time I was Angelotti, and Scarpia was played by the late Robert Poulton. He gave a serious, subtly portrayed, beautifully sung performance. At the curtain call he was booed, not as a measure of disapproval, but because Scarpia is the bad guy. Rob was a tough old pro and laughed it off – at subsequent curtain calls he did an impression of the U-Boat captain from Dad’s Army taking names for his list – but he was clearly hurt. Even when it’s obviously meant as a sign of affection and approval, unless you’re in a pantomime it’s not really much fun being on the receiving end of pantomime boos.
When it came to performing the role of Pacheco in James Macmillan’s Ines de Castro in Glasgow earlier this year, I was therefore fully prepared for what the audience response would be – if Scarpia is a 10 on the 1-10 scale of bad guys, Pacheco is an 11, capping his performance by beheading two six-year-boys, and then mocking their mother as he sends her off to be executed. While preparing and rehearsing the role, I wondered to myself, was there a way of avoiding it? Should I make Pacheco softer, more human, more sympathetic, and perhaps elicit a more pleasing audience response? My conclusion – and I had the advantage of working all along with a supportive director and also the composer himself – was no: that would undermine the dramatic function of the character, and would make Ines’ plight less sympathetic – it’s crucial to the dramatic success of the piece that the audience’s sympathies stay with the heroine at all times and as much as possible. (The same goes for Scarpia and Tosca.) So, booing it was, and in fairness, given that it was clear the booing was aimed at the character, rather than me, I can’t argue he didn’t deserve it. (Interestingly, there was no booing when we got to Edinburgh, but at the same time the ovation in general was probably more genteel and reserved…. The study of the distinctions between those two cities and their citizens is a lifetime’s work.)
It’s also to do with the nature and tone of the piece. In Act 2 of Ines de Castro, librettist and composer deliberately punctuate the drama and music with scenes of wry vaudevillean farce, toying with the audience’s expectation of style and emotional timbre, so a wry ovation was hardly out of place. On the other hand, if you get booed as Wotan or Escamillo or even Macbeth then something has gone wrong somewhere along the line.
The issue underlying all of this is: what is a curtain call for?
In 2004 I was a trainee at the National Opera Studio. Tim Pigott-Smith gave us an acting class at the National Theatre, where he was appearing as Ezra Mannon in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, which I went to see a couple of days later. Mannon is murdered at the climax of the first play of the trilogy, but even so Tim was present at the curtain call, despite having been dead for several hours by that point. Crucially, it was a company curtain call – it wasn’t that he’d come back for a solo ovation and personal glory. I’m sure he’d been home and had a bowl of cereal in the meantime, but the fact that he had viewed it as important to be a part of that shared catharsis between cast – by which I mean the actors, not the characters they had portrayed – and audience is something I’ll appreciate forever.
Because the convention in opera is not for company curtain calls, but rather for individual bows in a strict (and much-debated by singers) pecking order, it’s much harder to experience that shared catharsis – far more often it becomes an indulgent ritual of congratulation and neediness. It’s a strange beast, loaded with the problems from which classical music suffers in general – i.e. what is the “correct” way to respond? As if going to the theatre was like attending evensong, where the expected sit, kneel and stands are in italics and the appropriate spoken responses in bold. A paying audience is entitled to respond at a curtain call any way they see fit. But the best responses are when, as in Derry, the audience reaction is spontaneous and heartfelt – and whether that’s cheering, booing or tearing up the seats, those are the ones we should treasure.