Etiquette demands that audiences at Western classical concerts avoid inept noises such as coughs. Yet coughing in concerts occurs more frequently than elsewhere, implying a widespread and intentional breach of concert etiquette.
Listening to music evokes identity, prestige, exclusion, conformity, affirmation of values, and shared aesthetic experiences. In Western classical music, both the norms of concert courtesy (not to cough, say) and individual disobedience to these rules (the deliberate cough) reflect these social phenomena.
What was the interplay between plumbing and the routines of audience behavior at London’s 18th-century opera house? A simple question, perhaps, but it proves to be a subject with scarce evidence, and even scarcer commentary.
“Pots, privies and WCs: Crapping at the opera in London before 1830” by Michael Burden (Cambridge opera journal XXIII/1–2 [March–July 2011] pp. 27–50) sets out to document as far as possible the developments in plumbing in the London theaters, moving from the chamber pot to the privy to the installation of the first water-closets, addressing questions of the audience’s general behavior, the beginnings in London of a listening audience, and the performance of music between the acts.
Burden concludes that the bills were performed without intervals, and that, in an evening that frequently ran to four hours in length, audience members moved around the auditorium and came and went much as they pleased (to the pot, privy, or WC), demonstrating that singers would have had to contend throughout their performances with a large quantity of low-level noise.
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