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So why is clapping at the right point in a concert such a big deal?
Clapping at the wrong time is thought to disrupt the mood and could distract the performers. For example, clapping after each short piece in a song cycle like Winterreisewould be tedious for the audience – as well as breaking the spell cast by Schubert’s dark musings. Similarly, applause between movements of a symphony can destroy the dramatic development or transition the orchestra has worked so hard to create. It’s considered a faux pas to be caught out as a lone clapper – to those around you it may suggest a novice in their midst.
So when should you applaud?
In opera, reserve your “bravos” until the end of an aria and put your hands together at the end of an act. In symphonic or instrumental concerts, the appropriate time is at the end of an entire work. To work out when an unfamiliar piece will conclude, check the program booklet – most will list the movements. You can also look to the conductor or soloist for visual cues; they will lower their arms and relax.
Have concert-goers always been so uptight about clapping?
No. Audiences in Mozart’s time, for instance, would applaud, boo and hiss as loudly as they wanted, whenever they wanted. Theatres were rowdy, places where the music often played second fiddle to distractions such as card games and supper. Patrons of the opera would stop talking to listen to the great showpiece arias they recognised, then promptly resume their conversations. The respect we accord the music today began to be codified in the late 19th-century by composers such as Mahler (also a conductor), who enforced the practice of dimming the lights, and Wagner, who demanded silence when his operas were performed.
Is it OK to boo?
It is generally frowned upon (although the Parisians and Milanese are much more boo-happy than most audiences). The politest way to express your disapproval is to sit silently in your seat without clapping.
Is coughing a crime? What if you can’t help yourself?
Most concert-goers will say that the most frequent irritation in the theatre is coughing. A single cough can be heard across the auditorium and destroy the mood entirely. It can also really get on performers’ nerves, as tenor Jon Vickers once demonstrated when he shouted, “Shut up with your damn coughing!” during Tristan und Isolde. If you can’t help yourself, wait until a break or a loud moment in the performance, and contain it as much as you can by coughing into a tissue. If the coughing persists, leave the auditorium as quietly as possible.
What else should I be mindful of when attending a concert?
Turn off your mobile phone and digital watch alarm. Be silent as soon as the performers come on stage. Do not, under any circumstances, take photos. No matter how much you are enjoying yourself, try to avoid tapping your foot, and ladies: leave your jingling bangles at home! Taking young children to a performance can be an enriching and educational experience for them, but it is best avoided if you think their presence will cause distraction to performers and fellow audience members.
APPLAUSE FOR SALE: THE STORY OF THE CLAQUE
A "claque" (from the French "clap") is a group of people paid to clap, cry, boo or generally react in pre-determined ways at theatre or opera performances. Although the first claques date back to ancient times, they became an institution during 19th-century performances in France, later extending to Italy, the UK, the USA and beyond. During this time their influence grew, at one point helping to make or break artists' careers. Some claques became so powerful (such as those at La Scala in Milan) that if artists or managers refused to pay them, they'd attend performances anyway and boo the artists instead. However, some artists refused to bow to them: when Birgit Nilsson received a call from the head claqueur at The Met before her debut as Isolde, she told him, "The day I have to pay for applause is the day I quit singing".