A young woman is playing Subway Surfer on her tablet. The light from the screen gently illuminates her face, revealing deep concentration; by swift movements of her fingers, she jumps over the trains, picking up coins.
She does not seem annoyed by the two men discussing an obviously urgent matter right next to her. It is impossible to make out what they’re saying, but the topic must be of the utmost importance — it goes on for at least 10 minutes, its sound soon merging with that of a plastic bag being crumpled slowly, painfully slowly, splitting the ears in the attempt to avoid making noise as the woman who is holding it reaches inside to fish out libb abyad or pumpkin seeds, one at a time, the shells of which she proceeds to open up (as you do) with her teeth…
Suddenly a mobile phone rings, and the man who answers — mumbling into it — begins to move swiftly past his row of seats, over the legs of the audience, voicing the occasional “excuse me” on his way out.
The setting, sadly, is not some old cinema. Nor is this a caricature of the circus.
It is the Cairo Opera House Main Hall, in which these people are attending Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company. It’s a full house, and the majority of those there are there to enjoy the ballet as the ballet should be enjoyed. But however small their number, the homo sonantis among them manage to spoil the evening.
I for one rarely move from my favourite seat at the Opera: in the parterre’s back rows, slightly to the left. However having sat there on the first two evenings of Romeo and Juliet, which opened on 30 May, I was wondering what on earth might be going on at the opera’s top balcony: the noise was reaching all the way down to me at the bottom of the auditorium. It was on the balcony on the third evening that I realised.
Aside from all that mayhem, indeed, it was interesting to note some people throwing the occasional glance at the stage. Some even found the performance amusing and giggled every time a dancer executed one of the challenging grand jetes. Sigh.
This is not the first time that one notices serious problems in the behaviour of the audiences flocking to the Cairo Opera House. While the past few years revealed a growing interest in ballet and dance performances among the young generation, these problems cannot be linked to the young in particular. They are rather the work of a multigenerational New Audience that has recently entered the opera.
Already in the past months, Opera artists have been complaining about how difficult they find it to concentrate with flashes going in the auditorium despite clear instructions not to take photos, with mobile phones ringing and loud discussions taking place. The ushers do a very good job trying to address those issues, but they are always outnumbered, and in almost every case they can be seen helplessly chasing the offending lights and sounds.
The Cairo Opera House has rules and expectation that are listed in English and Arabic on the back of every ticket. One of the seven rules states clearly that “pagers and cellular phones are prohibited inside the auditorium.”
A few years ago, mobile phones were being collected at the entry to the Cairo Opera House. Later on, the management began disabling the mobile network inside the auditorium. Today, unfortunately, neither measure is taken — and the greater variety of mobile appliances presents an even greater problem.
Another rule states that late comers “will not have access to the auditorium until a suitable interval”. The procedure at the Cairo Opera is to move late comers to the balcony until the entr’acte when they can find the seats indicated on their tickets. This expectation was extremely challenging for a large family that, having decided to attend the premiere of Romeo and Juliet, arrived over 20 minutes late and proceeded to make a loud scene threatening the ushers of the consequences should they not be allowed into the parterre in the middle of the first act.
So who is this New Audience?
Only an answer to this question could suggest a clue to solving the problem. Since the phenomenon emerged in the last two-three years, it can be concluded that this is a post-Revolution effect, part of the general collapse in manners in everyday life.
It is also evident however that the New Audience comes to the Opera to show off, not to enjoy the music. They are not regulars. They spend most of their time taking pictures of themselves to post on the social media.
Perhaps they should be made aware of Opera etiquette more forcefully, perhaps mobile networks should be disabled and a greater number of signs put up indicating that neither photography nor libb abyad is allowed.
Indeed discussions of opera etiquette are a returning in the classical music world, though admittedly in other parts of the world they address less obvious issues. As operas around the world struggle on to keep their halls full, they have introduced compromises to accommodate younger audiences, dropping the formal dress code for example. Along the same lines, younger Egyptians have expressed opposition to the jacket and tie policy imposed by the Cairo Opera’s Main Hall.
Yet this is something that needs to be put in perspective. Those calling for dropping the formal dress code are Opera regulars who will not misbehave in the same way, and they want to move further along on the way to international standards.
Yet with the emergence of the New Audience (who, incidentally, delight in soiree dresses, high heels and heavy perfumes), perhaps there are more urgent concerns — and they should be faced with persistence and patience by both administration and old audience.
This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly