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Classical 101

The Met's HD Don Carlo, or Why We Should Applaud in Movie Theaters

I know I am writing for a crowd of opera buffs -- not professional and aspiring operatic singers, but rather those of you who enjoy opera and maybe even follow it as its siren song draws you into ever deeper familiarity with the genre you love. And I know you opera buffs well enough to know that many of you do, in fact, love opera.

Why do you -- why do we -- love opera?

There are as many answers to this question as there are people. As such, our answers boil down to what makes us human. Because it exposes our every nerve ending to the full spectrum of human emotion, opera might not always make us feel good, but it will, if given half a chance, make us feel. Maybe opera's ability to awaken us is what gave birth to the tradition of applauding after arias, mid-opera. You know the idea: the opera starts; various and sundry solo singers, maybe also the choral legions, sing this, that or the other; the tension mounts; the drama builds. Then one of the soloists sings a lengthy aria to his/her absent lover, to the moon, to the King of Thule, to the nation of France. The audience applauds for an untold length of time while all on stage freeze in tableau. Everything is brought to a halt as the crowd claps in admiration of the singer's command of voice and character. When in the presence of a beautiful opera and great singers/actors, it is easy to get so wrapped up in the emotions of the characters that one's own emotions simply bubble over into applause. This, too, is operatic -- over the top and effusive. It is also what connects the human beings in the parterre or upper balcony to the humanity of the characters onstage and those portraying them. And it is an opportunity for us to join others in giving voice to how the art we're watching and hearing is affecting us.

The new "audience" (in the movie theater)

The Metropolitan Opera's live HD transmissions of its productions raise some interesting questions about this grand tradition of applauding after arias. For me, at least, Saturday's live transmission of Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlo brought these questions front and center. It is a most Italian thing to applaud and holler bravos, or (dare I say it?) hiss and boo after showcase arias. The audience at the Metropolitan Opera Saturday afternoon did just that -- in several places. One time, was after the title character's signature aria ("Io la vidi") near the beginning of Act I. From this aria onward, tenor Roberto Alagna brought sublime voice and presence to his role. The New Yorkers gave him a round of applause, as they did for King Philip's (Ferruccio Furlanetto) Act IV aria, "Ella giammai m'amo" and Elisabetta's (Marina Poplavskaya) Act V aria, "Tue che la vanità," and after the love duet with Don Carlo, "Ma lassù ci vedremo." But in response to these operatic tours-de-force, I and a few others from our seats at the AMC Lennox Town Center 24 issued only a smattering of self-conscious applause. My applause was self-conscious not because I was less than resolute in my appreciation for the performances, but rather because so few others around me also applauded. I suspect that the others who clapped had  a similar experience. So there we were, swept away by great singing, but our expressions of appreciation subdued by a game of "you go first." Some might wonder, what good does it do to applaud mid-opera when a movie screen and hundreds of miles separate you from the performers you're applauding? This question leads to another: Does it matter whether or not the singers hear our applause? It might matter to them and their egos. But I would argue that this tradition of applauding and shouting "bravo" or "brava" after a good aria is more important for what it does for us, the audience, than what it might do for the performers. This tradition allows us  to become involved with the opera -- its story, the plight of its characters, and yes, the singers performing it, even when they cannot hear our applause. Clapping after a good aria makes us part of the performance. It makes the opera ours. At the end of the day, it's not a select few at the Metropolitan Opera, but all of us, to whom opera -- the most human of all musical genres -- belongs. So I issue a call to all of you who attend the Metropolitan Opera's HD transmissions to applaud heartily, without feeling silly whenever something moves you. Why, you ask? Because it will be good for your soul. Isn't that what art should be?