The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Are arts audiences and presenters in Madison rude or inconsiderate? One loyal patron thinks so. | October 24, 2015

By Jacob Stockinger

Arts patron Larry Wells wrote to The Ear to get something off his chest that might also pertain to other audience members, including you. Here is what he said:

I moved to Madison a little over a year ago after spending the last 40 years in San Francisco, Moscow and Tokyo, all of which had vibrant offerings for symphonic music, ballet and opera as well as great performance venues.

I have been very pleased to find that Madison offers the same. I can think of four different symphony orchestras I’ve heard in Madison this past year as well as opera and ballet performances. (Below is Overture Hall.)

Overture Hall

The difference has been the audiences.

I do not believe I have been to a single performance this year where there hasn’t been someone who has decided to unwrap a cough drop. This usually happens during a quiet passage, and often the culprit realizes that he or she is making a noise, so decides that the solution is to unwrap the cellophane more slowly, thus lengthening my agony.

In San Francisco, someone at the symphony came up with the solution to supply cough drops with silent wrappers in bowls at each door to the hall. Problem solved.

cough drops

Another source of noise in the audience is whispering. Usually when someone starts speaking to his neighbor, annoyed audience members glare at the culprit, and then he starts to whisper. I assume that the underlying belief is that when you whisper, you cannot be heard. That is, of course, incorrect. You can still be heard, just not as clearly. In Japan, no one would dream of speaking during a performance.

Woman whispering in man's ear, close-up (B&W)

Woman whispering in man’s ear

I was at the ballet the other night at the Capitol Theater for which I had bought the priciest ticket in the center orchestra. There were five middle school girls seated directly behind me. Each had a plastic cup filled with a drink and crushed ice. Throughout the first act I kept hearing the ice being sloshed around in the plastic cups as every last drop of icy goodness was being extracted.

I asked an usher during the intermission about this, and she said that it was each ensemble’s choice as to whether drinks were allowed in the theater or not. For example, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra does not allow drinks but the Madison Ballet does.

This is the first time I have heard of drinks being allowed into a ballet — they certainly weren’t allowed at the Bolshoi where they had very stern ushers, I can tell you — and I wonder if popcorn and hot dogs will be next. Perhaps it has to do with the prevailing current American fear of becoming dehydrated, although I think most people can endure 40 minutes without dessicating.

soda in a plastic cup

The Ear believes that I am a curmudgeon, and I halfway believe it myself. But when my enjoyment of a concert is jeopardized by inconsiderate audience behavior, then I believe I have a right to be miffed.

Curiously, I have not been to a single performance of anything this past year that hasn’t ended with a standing ovation. Now, I understand that the audience is just trying to be nice. But shouldn’t standing ovations be reserved for truly sensational once-in-a-lifetime experiences? Otherwise, the whole idea is cheapened, and Madisonians end up coming across as provincial.

BDDS standing ovation

I will end this diatribe with one more aspersion to be cast, but this time toward the ticket office at the Overture Center.

Last weekend, I was at the Madison Symphony Orchestra and had a spare ticket that I was trying to give away when I was yelled at by a box office clerk who said: “That’s illegal here!” Thinking that she thought I was trying to scalp a ticket to the symphony — probably not a major problem in Madison — I told her that I was merely trying to give the ticket away. She repeated, “That’s illegal here.”

I was very embarrassed. I seriously doubt that there is a city ordinance against giving away concert tickets, and if I want to give away a $75 ticket as a good deed, I think that should be my prerogative.

MSO ticket

With declining attendance at arts events, I feel that the Overture Center should have its patrons’ good will in mind instead of demonizing them for doing a good deed.



  1. Agree with every word. A few of the staff there need to get a grip and dial down the police tactics of screaming at people. Find another line of work or take a Valium like a normal person.

    Also the restrooms at Overture reek! Transients living in bathrooms? And the carpets have nasty stains.

    Comment by chris A — November 2, 2015 @ 9:42 pm

  2. I totally agree with Larry Wells!

    Seemingly mandatory standing ovations (and being shunned if you don’t); chattering during performances; constant need for oral fixation (drinks)… it’s like attending performances with grade school audiences.

    Thanks for voicing what I’ve felt for so long 🙂

    Comment by John Pass — October 27, 2015 @ 7:14 am

  3. I agree with the comments about standing ovations. They should not be routine, but are at Madison musical events and APT.
    The alternative to not using cough drops often is to cough–Madison events do offer soft wrapped cough drops–a better solution is to bring a very small container of water and sip when necessary–more effective than cough drops. HP

    Comment by Harry Peterson — October 25, 2015 @ 8:37 pm

    • Or unwrap it before the music starts. That requires foresight.

      Comment by Larry Wells — October 26, 2015 @ 7:23 am

  4. Although my experience is with theater, not music, I agree with the poster about standing ovations. Sheesh. APT put on some terrific plays this summer but not every one was worthy of a standing ovation. Yet every play there ends with the audience on its feet. Madison is indeed provincial.

    Comment by Judy — October 25, 2015 @ 2:34 pm

    • Yes, the audience is slightly provincial. Not the same in Ann Arbor.

      Comment by Irmgard Bittar — October 25, 2015 @ 3:45 pm

  5. I’ll add to your list. 😉 I have actually experienced (as recently as last night at the UW Opera’s wonderful production) people nearby humming along! And, though rarely, people “conducting” from their seats in what they think is a small way, but the motion is distracting. BUT – the quality and quantity of offerings in Madison is wonderful, so these annoyances are well worth tolerating.

    Comment by kjrasmussenwi — October 24, 2015 @ 10:39 am

  6. On Sat, Oct 24, 2015 at 12:02 AM, The Well-Tempered Ear

    Comment by keyboardskills — October 24, 2015 @ 6:20 am

  7. Some of these gripes have merit, others not so much.

    First, whispering. I completely agree with the poster. It is very annoying. Once in Hawaii, at the symphony concert hall, I was watching/listening to a performance and a man not only whispered but was speaking out loud behind me. This was during a symphony. First, I shuffled in my chair a bit (that usually alerts the offender but in this case, he just continued). Then I half way turned around. This almost always works but did not. He prattled on and on, not in a whisper but out loud.

    Then I actually turned around and said out loud to the offender: “Please shut up.” It turned out that the offender was the soloist for the first half of the concert, the violinist, Nigel Kennedy. He was surprised that someone would speak like that to him but he did indeed shut up after that (and moved with his problems outside the concert hall; he was having an argument with a lady friend). You would think that a performer would know better but Kennedy certainly did not! By the way, I’ve never seen a bigger jerk in my life; so you cannot always tell whom the offender might be!

    Maybe you should have given your ticket away farther from the box office? They indeed probably thought you were scalping it.

    I agree drinks should NOT be allowed in any theater.

    As for standing ovations, I also agree with the writer but maybe he has been attending some great performances? I might add that I think American ensembles give far, far too many encores. In most European countries, they almost never do.

    Comment by fflambeau — October 24, 2015 @ 12:26 am

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