Coughing Audiences – Attention Deficiency or Act of Defiance?

The rudeness and inconsiderate nature of some classical music audiences never ceases to amaze me. Whether it is the agonizing  cellophane wrappers being delicately opened with precision, the inerrant cell phone interruptions, such that occurred recently at the New York Philharmonic’s performance, or the need felt by some performance attendees to constantly discuss moment by moment with their neighbor the action occurring onstage, there is one behavior that for me is the most perplexing.  Coughing; Extremely unusual amounts of coughing in audiences.

You might be thinking, “Lighten up.  People cough.  People make involuntary noises.  It’s a fact of life.  Get over it.”  I would answer that with yes, people make involuntary noises, but why do they always seem to happen at the most exposed musical and/or dramatic moments?

The cultural theorist Elias Canetti details in his essay “Crowds and Power” that the act of making noise in spaces deemed worthy of reverence of respect and silence is an indirect way of displaying one’s disapproval, and even defiance of a situation.

Relating this to coughing audiences, New York Times critic, Bernard Holland explains:

It hardly seems logical when you consider that coughing is an involuntary physical response and that only one respiratory misadventure among 2,800 rapt admirers is needed to derail a performance. Yet nightly experience convinces me that somehow, by means of some mute transmission of emotion and evaluation, crowd noise or its lack is music criticism — that chain reactions of coughing, rattling programs and shuffling feet report the circumstances of a boring concert as vividly as any printed review. Silence marks success…Ignorance may have caused this noise, but the need to be recognized and to share is rarely absent. Beneath the heedless listener, in other words, hides the listener as rival: a grudging servant, subversive, watchful of opportunity, ready with a cough or a misplaced cheer to encroach on the rituals of silence. This may be the closest music ever gets to religion, or to politics.

There is also a simpler theory; the idea that audiences cough, move and make noise simply for the fact that they are unable to concentrate, and therefore make noise as a nervous reaction to feeling the need to sit still and quiet.  The internet is filled with instances such as this; irritated opera goers, venting their frustrations with disruptive audiences.  As one blogger points out, the legendary tenor, Jon Vickers, even went so far as to break character onstage at a Dallas Opera performance of Tristan und Isolde to tell a coughing audience member to “Shut up with your damn coughing!”  Another blogger more recently reflected after a performance of La Traviata at The Royal Opera House, it was as if Violetta was ironically surrounded by an audience also plagued by consumption.  The same blogger goes on to suggest another theory about why audiences cough.  On the act of coughing, saying,

The short answer is nerves or, more bluntly, a lack of concentration. They feel on edge. The silence and focus required by these performances has a bizarrely reverse effect. Attention is brought back on to uncertain members of the audience and they feel the need to act out. Bronchial emissions are the mid-performance equivalent of the entrance and curtain call applause. We somehow feel bereft when silenced by the very thing that has, supposedly, brought us in the first place.

Having experienced a rather unsettled audience this weekend at a performance of Madame Butterfly, it seemed I was witnessing one of these two theories in action.    The entire performance, all 2 1/2 hours of it, was littered with enough coughing and hacking to fill a doctor office waiting room in the middle of flu season.

One would logically think that if this was just random noise then it would be pretty evenly spread throughout the duration of the evening.  However, this was not the case.  The noise always reached its most heightened and annoying levels during the most quiet, intimate moments.  The famous “Humming Chorus” at the end of Act II, one of the most sublime and peaceful musical moments in opera, was simply awash with fits of hacking and shuffling of programs and feet.  I kept thinking to myself, “Really people?  You ALL couldn’t have waited a couple more minutes to get that out?”  It was as if the mere intimacy of the moment; the utter stillness of it, made people so uncomfortable that they had to make their own noise.

On the other hand…

Was this a secret mutiny?  Was I witness to an unspoken display of defiance and disappointment in the performance via their bronchial gestures of interruption?  It’s hard to say, but my guess is that it had far more to do with many audience’s inability to concentrate, and therefore caused the nervous reaction described previously.  Then again, there were those who certainly we dissatisfied with the performance artistically.  After the performance ended, I overheard an old lady (probably one of the coughing, shuffling, cough-drop openers), complaining to someone from the staff that this Butterfly was, “disgraceful”, and “overly Americanized.”  Whatever that means.  Was she one of the ones making noise, but making it as a non-verbal display of her disapproval for what she was witnessing?

All in all, it seems there is some credibility to my observation that people tend to cough and make more noise when it is most noticeable in a performance.  And, it seems there are many others who have written on this subject who also see the patterns.  There is definitely psychologically and even sociologically happening in certain audiences that causes this behavior.  It certainly would make for an interesting sociological study.

So, is coughing and noise making in performances an act of defiance, or simply a display of one’s inability to remain concentrated and engaged.  I assume it’s probably some combination of both, with more weight placed on the latter.  If only to be in grad school again and have the countless hours to research such a topic!