|"Odd Fellow Complaining" By Thomas Rowlandson (Metropolitan Museum of Art)|
I'm kicking around Door County, enjoying some long overdue R & R. But don't worry, I'm not going to leave you in the lurch. Not when I have chestnuts like this one in the computer banks, perched alertly on the edge of its chair, hands folded in its lap, waiting to be asked to dance. I invited the Lyric Opera to share with me some of their complaint letters from patrons and, mirabile dictu, they did. This column came to mind last week when I was chatting with the folks at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra about possible future stories.
OPENING SHOT . . .
This is the dilemma. You go to the opera, your senses fully open, your ears straining to savor every sublime note, your eyes, eager to take in every aspect of the colorful pageant unfolding in glory before you.
And yet. There are other things going on, in addition to the sound and action on stage. You're also in a room with 3,300 other people. People who are coughing. People who are shifting in their seats. People who are unwrapping mints, though it sounds like they're unwrapping Christmas presents just as the orchestra hushes and the fawn enters the glade.
What to do? Here human nature cleaves into two groups. There is the ignore-it crowd—the majority—and there are those who complain.
Every year, some 140 letters from opera patrons complaining about boorish behavior—or about completely innocent behavior—reach the desk of Jack Zimmerman, the Lyric's manager of subscriber services.
They complain about perfume. They complain about fellow patrons clearing their throats. They complain about hairdos, and the size of people's heads. They complain of too few intermissions, or too many. They complain about other patrons complaining—one patron, dubbed "The Shush Nazi," had to be told to stop telling others to be quiet, as his outbursts were annoying more patrons than the outbursts he was trying to quell.
Cell phones are a problem. The Lyric tries to keep distractions to a minimum by instructing people to turn off their phones before a performance. People complain about that, too.
"Sad to think that grown-up, mature adults would have to be so instructed," wrote an Oak Park patron, complaining about applause before the end of the act. "I find the clapping to be annoying and disruptive."
No aspect is too small for consideration. A loose screw in a doorknob. A word in the supertitles.
"I am writing regarding one line of the projected titles for 'La Traviata,' '' a subscriber from Wisconsin wrote last year. "If I remember correctly, when in the last act Germont seeks to console Violetta this year's production translated a line, 'weep, weep and let tears soften your grief.' Am I correct that in the 2003 production, this same passage was supertitled, 'Weep, weep and let tears comfort your grief'? To me, the latter has an almost visceral punch which is lacking in the former. How much more poignant that tears could comfort the very grief which produced them to begin with. . . . Won't you rethink this for the future?"
That letter was passed on to Frank Rizzo, the person responsible for the Traviata supertitles. In this era of form letters, not only does the Lyric respond specifically to each complaint, usually with a letter from Zimmerman, a novelist and former newspaper columnist, but he then tries to solve the problem.
Sometimes this requires considerable tact. Phoning a subscriber and bluntly accusing her of wearing too much perfume seemed out of the question, so Zimmerman instead contacted patrons in the general vicinity, informing them of the problem and asking if they had been bothered by it. The offending patron got the hint.
Opera fans must have some awareness of the tradition of complaint letters, because one cast his praise for the "Ring" cycle in the form of a gripe. "The Wagner works are simply not long enough," he wrote, an opinion perhaps never before expressed in the history of opera. "I really wanted to see the time stop."
One of my favorite complaint letters to the Lyric was not so much a complaint as a request. A woman in Westfield, Wis., had tickets to an opera she planned to attend with her daughter, but first she needed to raise "an important concern."
"When my daughter was growing up, we enjoyed some opera on public TV," she wrote. "Often the female singers wore distracting low-cut dresses. These indecent dresses portrayed the women as sex objects and took attention from their voices. I taught my daughter that Catholic-Christian women do not dress immodestly to provoke sexual impulses in men who are not their husbands."
The woman requested, "if low-cut dresses are part of your usual wardrobe," that the brazen female vocalists be covered up during the performance she and her daughter would attend.
"I don't want to pay to fill my mind with immodest images. These degrade family life, already severely damaged in our nation."
There are two salient points that leap out from her letter. First, the daughter in question was 23 years old.
And second, the opera they were traveling four hours to see was "Don Giovanni," Mozart's bawdy sex comedy that includes murder, beatings, attempted rapes, seductions and a recitation of the hero's 2,000 amorous conquests, all ending with the defiantly unrepentant rake being dragged down to the flames of hell by the vengeful spirit of one of his victims.
The Lyric's files do not contain further communication from the Wisconsin lady, but her reaction can be imagined.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 30, 2009