To Applaud, Or Not Applaud?


When I performed in the 1970 Broadway musical Applause, (in 1985) at the Brunswick Music Theater in Brunswick, Maine; I must admit that I never would have imagined that I would ever script a commentary on just such a subject.  But as the lyrics to the title song ring in my head: “Why do we work our asses off? Applause, Applause…”.  I found myself pondering just that…

You see, a funny question was posed to me the other day following the Sunday matinee of Boris Godunov at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  A member of the audience (a friend) was asking me what was up with all the applause coming from the performers themselves…”aren’t you supposed to be the ones getting the applause??”, he asked.  Good question, I thought; so I began to give it some consideration…

Old school protocol seems to reinforce the mindset that at curtain calls, the performers should gracefully receive the applause that they have earned for the performance they have just given, and refrain from applauding one another.  OK, I can understand and accept that to a certain extent, and also understand its reasoning.  But over the years there HAS been a tendency for performing artists to applaud one another as we take our curtain calls.  This normally happens when the curtain is “out”, and we enter from the wings to take our applause, as opposed to what we term “paged bows”, which is when the curtain falls, then is opened at the center by a Curtain Page–at which point we emerge in two’s, three’s, a group of five, etc;  and of course, the solo bow–all of which are effectively in front of the curtain.  The bows are all pre-arranged, and are indeed usually rehearsed so that they do not look sloppy.

I know for sure that for several years now, we on-stage performers have been so grateful to sing with a live orchestra, that we heartily applaud their efforts.  We therefore applaud for them when the conductor comes out to take his/her bow, and acknowledge the forces in the pit!  Keep in mind, they sit and play non-stop; especially rigorous is their task on those nights where Richard Wagner is on the menu!!  Remember if you will, that the live, true, operatic format (along with symphony, and ballet) still uses a full classical orchestra as accompaniment–or primary focus in the case of symphony, of course.

But back to the singers applauding themselves:  I for one, am always anxious to applaud my colleagues, and often do…even if it is two or three simple claps.  I guess it is because I know what it has taken to get to the point of even being able to take a bow.  Therefore, if I am guilty of breaking old-school protocol, then so be it…I am guilty, as charged.  Note also that when I take a bow, I sometimes applaud the audience!!  It’s my small way of saying “thank-you for coming!!”.

Then there is the special case scenario such as this (give me a second, I will get to it):

In our current production of Boris Godunov at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, we are lucky enough to have one of the great interpreters of the title role (Ferruccio Furlanetto) in our midst.  I have been honored to sing Boris Godunov twice in this year of 2011–once in Dallas with another outstanding artist, Mikhail Kazakov, in the title role (see, and now Mr. Furlanetto.  I for one can tell you (if you want to know what goes on “behind the scenes” sometimes) that all of the principal artists crowd into the “wings” to watch and listen to Mr. Furlanetto as he sings Boris’ death scene…the scene that, in this performing version, ends the opera.  It is no exaggeration to say that it is riveting, even as we watch from a side angle!!  Those who are lucky enough to view this scene from the full-on audience perspective, are especially gifted.  His is, in fact, the modern day gold-standard interpretation of the role; following in a not too terribly long line of great bassos who have sung this role to utter distinction.

When Mr. Furlanetto enters the stage to take his solo bow in front of all the chorus, supernumeraries, and other principal artists; the chorus shuffles, or lightly taps their feet, while we others applaud unabashedly…WE DO IT OUT OF RESPECT!!!!

A truly great artist is entitled to this from the audience AND his/her colleagues.  They have earned this kind of reception because of their many years of service to a large body of work, or for a particular role for which they have become synonymous!!!

I hope this helps to address the issue, and I appreciated the question.  It was a good one!!!


Ariadne auf Naxos, Lyric Opera of Chicago review (final dress)

Throughout my career, I have counseled the general opera-going public to never confuse the real-life person with their on-stage persona, regardless of the character they are playing.  The swarthy, always in control characters that Clark Gable played on the silver screen, gave way to an insecure, boyish, real-life personage who had to marry up and up in order to advance his career.  “The Duke” John Wayne, with the rugged style and ironed sided nature of all of his dramatis personae, was forever under the thumb of John Ford–the great movie director that is fully credited with making Wayne a star.  In fact, when Ford felt that Wayne was getting too big for his britches, he busted him back to B-movie status; a lesson the latter learned quickly and never forgot…he didn’t cross Ford again, despite Ford berating him daily on the movie set even AFTER Wayne had attained superstar status.

In Richard Strauss’ part serious/part comedic opera Ariadne auf Naxos (performed in two parts: Prologue and “Opera”), he tackles this issue full force; but it is rarely articulated in critical commentary.  The ever serious “composer” in the opera’s prologue presents himself (pants role, sung by Alice Coote) as someone who simply cannot bend or adjust his artistic principles to accommodate anything or anyone, until–in private–his paycheck is suddenly threatened!  Similarly, the flighty, sexy Zerbinetta (Anna Christy) who comes across to her fans as the break-your-heart/unfaithful-lover type, reveals in more private moments that all she really wants in real life is one man who will love only her.  Ultimately, no one is who they seem to be when they are ‘on-stage’, and some directors (Nic Muni comes to mind) have successfully staged this opera in a way that helps to expose its underbelly.  The current production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which debuted in the late 90’s, does not delve this deeply.  Instead, we get a very handsome, four-square solid, period presentation that is nicely directed by John Cox based upon Robert Perdziola’s original production (also directed by Cox), and viewed at its final dress rehearsal on Wednesday November 16, 2011.

The farcical Prologue is meant to be fun, with its biting satire of both high-brow, and low-brow entertainers who are to perform at the home of a wealthy Viennese patron.  At the last moment, due to dinner running late and a fireworks display that must start at exactly 9:00 p.m., the two very different performances are ordered to be combined and performed together, at the same time, with the entertainers left to decide on how to blend the content.  Egos and tempers flair, wigs begin to be thrown, insults hurled, and side deals are made.  Two seasoned veterans, Eike Wilm Schulte, and David Holloway ply their craft as the Music Master and Major Domo, while Edward Mout makes the most of his gem arietta as the Dancing Master.  The aforementioned Alice Coote delivers a choice rendering as the Composer.  Strauss teases us throughout the Prologue by giving the Composer very short snatches of glorious melody, pulling up just short of our full listening satisfaction.  He does it time and again, until he finally provides this character with a complete paean on the musical arts that closes the relatively short first half.  Coote provided full-throated, solid vocalism throughout.

“The Opera” portion of the opera (ie. the next Act), allows us full access to singers/characters that were only ‘hinted at’ during the prologue.  Delightful were Nili Riemer, Jamie Barton, and Kiri Deonarine (Naiad, Dryad, and Echo); their voices all splendid individually, but harmonizing together beautifully–with Barton a particular standout.  Matthew Worth (Harlekin), Wilbur Pauley (Truffaldino) and James Kryshak (Scaramuccio) provided slapstick style vaudeville/commedia dell’arte antics, while Rene Barbera lent his effortless tenor to the role of Brighella–Lyric audiences will surely hear more from this Operalia multi-award winner soon.  Anna Christie brought us a bright voiced and vibrant Zerbinetta, and was intelligently measured in her big second half aria.  The role of Bacchus (Brandon Jovanovich) seems to be reversely akin to that of Brunnhilde in Richard Wagner’s Siegfried…he does not appear until late into the opera, he comes to the stage basically fresh, and has only an elongated duet to sing with Ariadne, who has already been singing for some time.  One almost wonders if Strauss has parodied Wagner here–as the musical similarities are so glaring; but that is entirely academic.  Mr. Jovanovich sings the tricky (if somewhat thankless) role with great aplomb.  His voice seemed secure, even in the upper-most reaches of vocal phrases that have brought many a helden-esque tenor to their knees.

Ultimately, however, this opera is entitled Ariadne auf Naxos and–needless to say–a few direct moments have to be spent on the title character, which I have saved for last intentionally:

Singing the role of Ariadne is Amber Wagner, a relative newcomer to this challenging repertoire.  She delivered stout overall singing, peppered with moments of great power, as well as fine, impressive pianissimi.  It is clear that Ms. Wagner will continue to pursue this repertoire and will, no doubt, over the years amalgamate her singing and acting to grow into a first rate performer of this material.  The good news is that she has time to grow, and she surely will.

Finally, it is no secret that I have been a long-time, stalwart principal artist, great friend (and cheerleader) of this world-class opera company.  I offer this “review” simply because I felt I had something to say, and my readers enjoy and respect my candor.  I am fully aware that I critiqued a final dress rehearsal, but so have the finest critics worldwide when scheduling does not permit their attendance at a premiere.  It is, of course, very important to make that fact exceedingly clear as I have done several times.  It is also noteworthy that LOC is undergoing some extreme changes, while attempting to control budget costs during these very difficult economic times.  It is my opinion that we must continue to put the FINEST talent on our stage at all times.  It is a fine line to walk as we ALL attempt to do our part in the arena of expense mitigation.  Therefore, we continue to wish new General Director Anthony Freud and his full team of Administrators the best of luck as we move ahead into the future.