To Shush or Not to Shush?

As we live in the age of the iPhone, there is no question that the average attention span of the human race is getting shorter. While they are useful and have changed twenty-first century lifestyle for the better in many ways, they undeniably contribute to many of our distractions. This issue makes activities such as concentrating at work, driving, and even going to the opera more difficult. This lack of attention motivates us during a performance to stare off, steal a glance at our watches or maybe even our phones before directing our eyes back to the stage. For some, the problem is made worse by having an even shorter attention span and/or not knowing the rules of concert etiquette. Back when my father was attending Met performances as a college student, he would see printed articles in his programs going in depth about the practice of performance etiquette. After an incident I saw play out last week at the Met, it would seem that a revival of this is desperately needed.


David Pershall being shushed as Papageno in Virginia Opera’s production of The Magic Flute

Last week I paid a good sum of money to sit in a very nice orchestra-level seat at the Met for one my favorite operas. Through all of the first act, a young couple seated across the aisle from me whispered continuously, noisily feasted on Altoids and chocolate wrapped in crinkly foil, and passed an iPhone between them which had to have been dropped on the floor at least three times. A brave man at the beginning of Act II decided to put an end to it by executing a quick and quiet “sh”, providing the rest of us with peace for the duration of the act. At the end of the act, I overheard the shushed victim reprimanding the hero, saying something along the lines of, “If you ever shush me like that again I’m going to punch you.” I was horrified by this and intended to thank and reassure the man who gave us the chance to hear Act II without interruption, but unsurprisingly, the man did not return to his seat to enjoy Act III. For all I knew the man was back at home already, knowing that it was not worth trying to enjoy the performance, a performance he without a doubt paid a handsome sum for, just as I did.

What is to be done? Has concert etiquette been buried so far into the ground that it is worth giving up one’s enjoyment of a performance at the expense of rude patrons? Has the  attention span of an average audience been so mangled with by new innovations like the iPhone, that someone with a more focused attention span is looked upon as the bad guy? Two thirds of the tickets for an average performance at the Met are priced at over $175, meaning those coming have made a serious investment. Going to the opera itself does not have to be serious, but taking into account other people’s enjoyment always has to be taken seriously.

I am very interested in hearing responses to this. What are your thoughts? Is there a better way to stifle noisy audience members, or is better to sit and suffer? Do you have your own stories to tell? Please comment below or tweet me @MsOperaGeek.

6 comments on “To Shush or Not to Shush?

  1. You are correct, shh if needed. People should have the common sense and etiquette NOT to interrupt others. An opera, movie, or other acting/orchestra performance should be a break from the overload of information of everyday life. From the person who seems to take forever to unwrap their candy (because doing it slowly Is definitely more annoying than just opening it quickly) to the glare of an iPhone, there are certain places where people need to turn the iPhone off, relax and enjoy the performance (I’ve told you the story of the lady who took out a turkey leg from aluminum foil at a performance of Mostly Mozart years ago, while sitting in the orchestra she was “tailgating” that one still “take the cake” – OY)

  2. Whenever I read things like this, I wonder – where are the ushers and other FOH staff? I would suggest alerting the ushers and telling these people you’re doing so. That generally works, or should…. ????

  3. Shhh away! And when someone threatens to punch you if you shhh them again, go get the security guard and have them escorted from the opera house. This behavior is unacceptable anywhere, but as you rightly point out, going to the opera is an investment, and such behavior should not be tolerated.

  4. The man who shushed that noisy couple was absolutely right – if they couldn’t make it through an opera without rattling candy wrappers and playing with their phones, they should have spent their evening elsewhere. I’ve witnessed audience behavior like this at the Met too, but I have never been brave enough to confront the perpetrators!

  5. I believe it is absolutely our right to ask people to stop disturbing our enjoyment of the performance. Unfortunately, I seem to to do this more and more. I try really hard to be nice and wait until intermission – “excuse me, I’m sure you don’t realize it but your talking, eating, blah, blah really is very disruptive to those of us sitting around you.” The one thing I can’t tolerate is people using their cell phone. If there is REALLY an emergency, get up and leave the auditorium! I’ll never forget the time the man sitting next to me actually turned around and grabbed the cellphone away from a woman behind who would not stop texting during Rheingold. He couldn’t figure out how to turn it off, so he handed it to me! I calmly handed her the phone at the end of the performance, and she simply stalked out. It was the last Ring Cycle with James Morris, so I was secretly happy he grabbed the phone.

  6. I think the announcement (please turn off all electronic devices, etc..” should also include the following: ” If you need to unwrap candy, cough drops, or anything wrapped in noisy paper, please do so now so all patrons can enjoy the performance”. I was the one to make this announcement at a show in Italy, and it worked like a charm! These people mystify me..why do they attend in the first place??

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