To Tweet or not to Tweet

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We’ve been slow to catch up with the wave of live satellite relays now being offered by Eden Court. Last week, however, we made it to Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie from the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, and we found it an utterly engaging experience. In fact, I suspect that, for a very long and wholly unfamiliar Baroque Opera like this, the cinema experience might actually be the best way to see it for the first time, better even than being in the opera house itself. In the auditorium I could imagine my attention wandering during some of the long passages of declamation, but in the cinema, sensitive camerawork, and judicious use of close-ups, really drew us into the personal tragedies at the heart of the work. We did miss the champagne, though.

So, we’d give the whole experience a gold star, except for one really surprising element. As we in Inverness waited for the curtain to go up in Sussex, Glyndebourne regaled us with advertisements for future live relays (fair enough), and also with repeated injunctions to ‘get involved’ by tweeting during the screening! As avid fans of Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review on BBC Radio 5 Live, we were horrified at such a flagrant incitement to break the Wittertainment Code of Conduct. Needless to say no-one in the small but select Inverness audience did anything so crass.

The Code of Conduct started out, as many things do on this rather anarchic programme, as a joke between Mayo and Kermode, but it has been taken up by many cinemas around the world who see its ten rules, jokes aside, as simply good common sense for ensuring a pleasurable movie-going experience. For Glyndebourne to encourage its relay audiences to have their phones on at all, with all the light pollution that implies, and with the risk that not all of them will be set to ‘silent’, was really astonishing. I have written to complain!

But I think there’s a deeper philosophical issue here. ‘Get involved!’ exhorted the Glyndebourne advert, but surely, any audience member who is taking the time to compose and send a tweet is absolutely not involved in the gripping tragedy and the surreal spectacle unfolding on the screen. Certainly, over three hours and 45 minutes (including interval) I didn’t find my own involvement weakening for a moment, whereas during the film of Les Miserables a few weeks ago I was so bored I could have composed an entire novel in 140-character tweets.

The ‘involvement’ which Glyndebourne meant is social, not personal, and the two are not necessarily compatible. As someone who retains enough naivety to want to be made to laugh, cry, gasp and even hide behind the sofa while watching any drama, I do worry that there is a culture of objectivity and irony that is becoming all-pervasive. Why else do movie trailers now reveal almost the entire plot of a film, including the most exciting action sequences? Why does the Radio Times introduce each week’s new Dr Who monster before the new episode is screened? How else can perfectly normal people sit through such torture-porn movies as the Saw franchise? (I write as someone who nearly had to leave Pan’s Labyrinth at three different points in the movie, because of the violence.)

Mark Kermode even argues that it would be wrong to tweet or text during a film screening, even if you were the only person in the cinema, because it shows disrespect for the film-makers. While that rather Zen concept may be taking things a little far, I sympathise with his position. But we have to recognise that history is on the side of the tweeters. Gustav Mahler is credited with the practice of dimming the house lights during the overture of an opera, and then keeping them dim throughout the performance, and that was only at the start of the last century, when electric lighting made such an approach feasible, and it was initially resented by the audience. Prior to that, of course, the opera house was a place to go to see and be seen. French Grand Opera always had a ballet scene in the third or fourth act because that was when the members of the Jockey Club would turn up and expect to be able to see their favourite dancers. Hence, for example, the very rarely performed ballet scene in Verdi’s Otello. One doesn’t imagine the chaps from the Jockey arrived and left in sensitive silence.

It’s often said that it is unwritten codes of conduct that discourage many people from attending concerts, plays, opera and ballet: they’re worried about being made to look stupid because they might do the wrong thing—like applauding between movements. Yet the performers themselves can often be those who are most resistant to change. At the BBC Proms last week musicians were suffering from the heatwave, especially those involved in performing Wagner’s mammoth Ring cycle. In the liberal informality of the Proms, the audience could be in t-shirts and shorts, and several of them encouraged the musicians to discard their white ties and tails and do the same, but it’s the musicians themselves who defend their formal garb, saying it helps to create a sense of occasion.

And of course it is actors who are doing most to fight the menace of the mobile phone, often making up for the pusillanimity of theatre managements, as regular news reports testify Even more difficult is the situation of music venues that keep their bars open during the performance. A few years ago the great Steve Earle famously lost his temper at an Ironworks gig in Inverness, with a group of drinkers who would not shut up during his solo set.

So, am I making a Canute-like gesture in complaining to Glyndebourne? Should I accept that my wish to be profoundly moved, to be taken out of myself, to forget my surroundings, is the product of a relatively short period in cultural history, and that the tweeters, the chatterers and the drinkers are just the modern equivalent of the audiences that bought oranges from Nell Gwyn in 17th century London, or formed the notorious claque in 19th century Paris, or cheered on loquacious music hall MCs less than a century ago? Does the social trump the personal? Perhaps not. We’ve just been discussing how it no longer seems quite so cool to be ‘cool’, or an airhead, and that geeks and nerds are becoming more fashionable. So perhaps in future I may not need to long for the power of Ludwig II of Bavaria, who could command entire productions of Wagner’s operas for which he was the sole member of the audience. In the meantime, Glyndebourne really should think about adopting the Code.

© Robert Livingston

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