O for applause

Someone commented recently that in my reviews, I don’t often say whether or not there was a standing ovation after a concert or opera.  This is true, but it’s not due to a lack of observation or interest, but rather a result of my own ongoing frustration with modern audiences.

As Lauri’s List is primarily an arts advocacy organization, we do tend to be more enthusiastic than other press outlets — more cheerleader than watchdog.  Our review program exists because we want the arts to continue, and appreciate the work that it takes to put on a concert or a show. However, that is not necessarily why audiences stand.

Theoretically, ticketholders stand because they enjoyed the experience and felt the work was superlative.  But if that were the primary motivation, standing ovations would be rare, which they are certainly not:  a 2014 blog survey showed that a whopping 99% of performances got a standing ovation. This was probably not the most scientific of studies, but the likelihood that only 1% of those shows was less than superb is still very, very slim.  Something, clearly, is up.

The truth is, audience members often stand to cap off their own experience, regardless of content.  They’re cheering on one or more friends in the cast.  They want to feel that they’ve enjoyed their evening and gotten full value out of it.  It’s a pat on their own backs to legitimize spending the time and money to be there.  These are all understandable, very human responses, but borne of individual emotional needs rather than true appreciation of what has taken place.  So the traditional meaning of the Standing O has been seriously diminished, making it harder for performers to take seriously and less valuable as a PR asset:  “So-and-so’s Tosca receives standing O” is far less likely to ring true.

What has emerged over these years of increased Standing Os are several noticeable patterns in the way that an ovation tends to build and take place:

  • The good:  A genuine standing ovation is almost immediate and ubiquitous throughout the house.  The energy is tangible, and starts well before the final note.
  • The bad:  Most final ovations, however, tend to erupt in fits and starts, scattered and then cooperative — the first people stand for their own reasons, more stand because they think they’re supposed to, and the rest stand because they don’t want their seated posture to appear like an insult.
  • The ugly:  The worst standing is the simple result of the urge to leave, using the ovation as graceful “cover” so they can get to their cars as quickly as possible.  Cowards.

This may all sound very cynical, but the increase in what is supposed to be the highest praise from the seats has been well-documented and commented upon by observers around the world.  (In other words, I’m not the only one pondering and grousing about the trend.)

As presenters, of course, we can still rejoice at a positive response, but must take it all with a grain of salt.  We at the List have been proud that while the reception for our recent unSUNg concerts has been overwhelming, the standing ovation that occurred at the end of the last concert, for instance, was clearly both well-deserved and a sign that our exceedingly well-educated audiences are choosy in the best sense.  Richard Valitutto and Justine Aronson‘s performance was just that good.  That classic sign of an extraordinary performance actually meant what it was supposed to, and it was that much more valuable.  This offers real hope for the future of true appreciation.

And so, a challenge

As professionals, when concertgoing, do you jump up just because everyone else does so?  Don’t.

I dare you to stay put, brave the garage crowds and make no excuses.  Treat your decision to stand as a rare and precious commodity that can only be used on a limited number of instances in your lifetime.  Applaud wildly from your seat, unless you’re just so full of appreciation that your display needs to be taller.  Then give it all you’ve got.  Get back in touch with what you really think and feel about the performances you attend.  It may be that as a group, we can bring meaning back to the standing ovation, simply by knowing what we sit for.

1 thought on “O for applause”

  1. Glad to hear that I am not the only one thinking this way. Also, I wonder if TV music competition shows have had any effect on why modern audiences think King George was hearing the
    Hallelujah chorus. Last month I attended a really fine concert…and I was practically the only one standing. So it goes.


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