Coda: Listener of Note — Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners)

by BRIAN KELLOW

Coda Judith Martin sm 914
Etiquette authority and accused Ring-head Martin
© Pascal Perich/Corbis 2014

JUDITH MARTIN: I know that I seem like the classic little old lady in pearls who loves the opera. I came at it in an oblique way. I wanted to be a theater critic and was for several years. But when I was in high school, I fed this interest by going to the local theaters, so I could see things over and over again to understand how they were put together. The Metropolitan Opera came through town once a year and drew on locals for the ushers, so that's how I saw my first opera. 

A few years later, in college, I met my future husband, then a young medical student who spent his high-school years in Standing Room at the Metropolitan Opera, and he of course wanted to see every opera. He kept trying to teach me to appreciate Wagner. He had a willing student in our son, Nick, who is now director of operations at Lyric Opera of Chicago. We didn't realize he would be hooked for life! Every time you saw an opera or ballet at the Kennedy Center, with an acolyte or page or whatever, it was our son.

That became my next career in opera — as a stage mother. The Kennedy Center stage mothers were nothing like the stereotypical stage mothers. We had strict rules. No crying allowed. School is your main responsibility. If you don't get cast, you have to congratulate the person who did. They had to know not only was it their responsibility to show up, but they were supposed to know the whole opera. My son took to it like crazy. 

When you see things over and over again, you learn much more about them. So I was developing a bit. But then I became critic at large for Vanity Fair, and they sent me to Bayreuth. I took Nick along. It was his seventeenth birthday. I was not a Wagnerite and was aware of the extremely offensive history and the cult, and as a matter of fact I didn't care for the production there, which was the Peter Hall Ring. But the music, the sheer sensuality of it, overwhelmed me. Being inside the Festspielhaus is like sitting inside a violin. I had only a single press ticket. We made friends with Friedelind Wagner, and she said to Nick, "Come in my box with me." We saw the Ring, Parsifal, Meistersinger, Tristan. I came home and said to my husband, "Okay — I surrender." Years later, I was at a performance when a New York Times reporter was sitting beside me and said, "Are you a Ring-head?" I said, "Certainly not." He said, "How many Ring cycles have you seen?" I said, "Two in Washington, one in Bayreuth, two in Chicago, individual ones in New York." He said, "You're a Ring-head." I still deny it. 

OPERA NEWS: As an audience member at Bayreuth, how did you feel about the theater's comfort level?

JM: We were at the second cycle. At the first one the temperature had been 103 degrees inside the Festspielhaus. I asked how people handled it, and I was told that a couple of men would roll up their trousers slightly. [Laughs] That was all! Here's the thing that really got to me — an hour-long intermission, with everyone drinking champagne, and the bathrooms were empty! There was an attendant there, sitting, reading the libretto of Parsifal, and she gave me a sour look because she had to get up from that to give me a towel. 

ON: As our leading authority on etiquette, how do you feel about the current level of audience behavior in the opera house — the fact that there's seldom a performance that isn't interrupted by a cell phone ringing or someone next to you texting all night?

JM: The history of theater etiquette is not what most people think it is. Until the late nineteenth century, people would talk during the opera, get up and go out and visit in other boxes and so on. There's a wonderful scene in Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma where the Countess is talking about how much she adores the opera, and she's talking about it sitting in her box, during the opera. [Laughs] This absolute silence is a relatively new thing. It's of course an improvement, but it has also brought a lot of total crazies. One cough, and they want to slit your throat. Things do get rather wild sometimes, because there are people who think breathing is an interference. 

On the other hand, there are all the cell phones and the this and the that, and it's strange that before you go to a performance, you get an etiquette lesson. Someone says, "Don't use your cell phone or crinkle your candy wrapper." You would think that by now people would learn. What always happens when there's a new toy is that, first of all, people who have it think there are no etiquette rules attached to it. 

I say the old rules apply — you don't make noise during a performance. But compared to the eighteenth-century opera, these people are very well behaved. 

ON: Do you upbraid people for using their devices during the opera?

JM: I don't reprimand people. That's rude. When you confront someone rudely, you're going to make them defensive. If I am annoyed by something, I go and tell the house manager or usher. I can think of only one instance, where someone across the aisle opened a whole lunch and was chomping away on a sandwich, and I told the house manager. Even I can't go around correcting people's manners unasked. spacer

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3