Etiquette for the Classroom: Early and Later Opera

The other day in class, I was pushing the end of the classroom time and some students were getting up to leave.  I continued speaking as part of my delivery was relating a few anecdotal experiences. I was trying to deliver them with a more comedic style and even got the occasional laugh. I did not insist that people immediately sit down until I was finished talking.  On Twitter some students complained about how rude it was that people were getting up and leaving. Presumably those actually leaving were not on the feed to tweet a reply.  This incident got me thinking about classroom culture and my role as a performer.  As such I fall back on my singing training and on what I know about the history of opera.  I came out with more comparisons than say actual answers, but thought I would share the threads.

As someone interested in singing and classical singing my mom took me to the opera.  I learned some things about attending opera (or really classical performances) from attending. I learned a lot about classical singing style, and how a huge variety of stories could be told by singing the entire (or most of) the content.  I learned the context of famous arias I had only heard in isolation.  I learned other lessons too.  The lessons included be quiet, sit still, listen thoughtfully, and the idea that everyone else somehow gets this and if I am bored I may just be either too young or not trying hard enough. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed the performances, but if there were sections that seemed to drag on or were otherwise inaccessible to me, I learned that I still needed to sit there and be quiet.  At the very least I should confine myself to looking through the program (as long as I did it quietly).  I have more positive memories than negative ones, but the idea of the culture of the performance is an interesting one to me.  I always considered opera to be “high culture” where etiquette was extremely important.

I remember how surprising it was for me to learn in college that early opera was more like a show put on in the middle of a mall than it is now in the concert hall.  The venues were smaller (maybe even large rooms in someones homes at the beginning) and people played cards, had drinks, talked and generally carried on.  The recitatives had clear markings at the end, in part, to alert people that an actual aria was about to start.  The arias themselves were chances to show off.  Interesting performers were rewarded with the attention of the audience.  uninteresting ones were not.

So how did opera go from “all in a night’s entertainment” to “the” nights entertainment?  It has been a little while since I studied the history of opera, but my recollection is that over time one of the reasons for the change had to do with larger orchestras and more complex machinery (something that got increasingly complex in some traditions).  With the move to the concert hall and a changing audience came new etiquette.  I’m sure socioeconomic factors came into play and the system became more and more formalized.

So where is the college classroom on this continuum?  I think it varies, but we are certainly not at the point of early opera.  In general I believe the expectation is something much more formal.  So what is to be done with the student who finds the “performance” dull or inaccessible?  Is the best solution to sit quietly and if you don’t like it to find something else quiet to do?  Is it the student’s obligation to work hard to educate him or herself to more properly enjoy the performance?  Indeed I have found that careful study of an opera before I go greatly enhances my enjoyment and the accessibility of the medium.  So is that the bottom line?

In my class my primary objective is that students don’t interfere with the learning of other students.  Beyond that I don’t try to be in charge of someone else’s decisions about what they do.  If they come in and get something from what I have said, then that is great.  I work to give them a quality product.  I suppose I land more on the side of the interesting performer.  Some days I “nail it” and others I don’t.  I’m in charge of me and students are in charge of themselves.  They just can’t interfere with anyone else’s path in that regard.  I’m not sure how to encourage people to “study the opera” before class.  I know that it can be useful for opera and for classes.  It was however a realization I came to on my own.

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