Opera news

In January, Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban went to an Opera Australia performance of The Merry Widow.

At the end of the performance, Keith and then Nicole took to their feet to join in a standing ovation.

A man sitting behind them (whose view of the curtain calls they were presumably blocking) asked them to sit down.  They declined to do so and remained standing and applauding in front of him.  The man swatted Nicole with his program.

Keith accused the man of assaulting Nicole.  Amazingly, police were called and spoke to Keith and the man.  No charges were laid.

I know this because Nathanael Cooper, standing in for Andrew Hornery as author of the Sun-Herald’s “Private Sydney” feature, chose to publish a story about it today.

Why is this news?

Nathanael tells us:

…it raises the important question of what is and isn’t appropriate etiquette when one is watching a 116-year-old piece of theatre inside Sydney’s most famous building.

Back in the olden days standing ovations at the opera were considered a big no-no. It was the height of rudeness to stand up and potentially block your fellow patron’s view of the performers’ bows. Loud clapping, shouting bravo (for the men) and brava (for the women), and even loudly stamping your feet were all ok as long as your butt remained connected to the seat.

But social norms have evolved. In 2021 standing ovations are not only totally acceptable but encouraged. The performers love to see all those masked faces move five-to-six feet up as audiences show appreciation for the three hour performing odyssey they’ve enjoyed.

Somebody had to tell Nathanael “encouraged” and the last sentence (though the figure of “five-to-six feet up” could be his own miscalculation: not even Shane Lowrencev could be that much taller standing than sitting).  I mean, he couldn’t just have made it up, could he?

The account includes this paragraph:

After the drama subsided, Opera Australia boss Lyndon Terracini escorted the Kidman-Urbans through back of house and out the relative safety of stage door where they graciously posed for a photograph with the show’s star Virgilio Marino despite the ordeal they had just been through. PS reached out to reps for Kidman and Urban to make sure they are ok, but heard nothing back.

The supplied photo was taken by Lyndon Terracini.

So Mr Terracini is a likely journalistic source.

I can’t help feeling that a fair bit of the following was also inspired by Lyndon.

Imagine it was someone’s first time at the Opera House and they had to endure the embarrassing ordeal of being chastised by a curmudgeonly old bloke desperately grasping on to antiquated opera etiquette in an attempt to keep the art form reserved for the elite.

I once rocked up at the opera in jeans and sneakers and the looks of disgust on some of the well-heeled fuddy duddies could have separated the threads in my trousers. The fact I love opera, was the youngest person in the building by a good 30 years and would leave and tell all my other young friends about it was totally lost on them. They will all soon be dead and if young people don’t go to the opera we may need to start calling that building the Alan Jones School of Conservative Thinking because there won’t be much to put in it.

If Opera Australia is to survive and thrive it needs to encourage new audiences to see its productions. It lures newbies in by staging hokey populist operas and musicals. Despite copping criticism for this strategy, it persists because it needs to make money just to stay afloat, let alone recover from the huge financial hit all the performing arts suffered in the pandemic.

Old mate and his program are part of the reason opera patronage is dwindling. As much as Opera Australia needs to keep up with the times, so too does its audience.


  1. If anyone is part of the elite, it is Nicole and Keith.  They took their bodyguard.  It would be unsurprising if they were on the free list.
  2. I’ve never heard of a “rule” against standing ovations but I’m sure I would not remain standing if a person behind me whose view I was blocking asked me to sit down.
  3. If there is such a rule it’s not a rule which preserves the form for an elite.
  4. I hope I would not, if I were in the position of “Old Mate” (at 67 according to the police, he is younger than Lyndon) swat someone with my program.  It was wrong of him to do that, but not, in the circumstances something which ever need concern the criminal justice system.
  5. Terracini presumably knows or could find out how/by whom police were called.  Did Nathanael not ask him about that?
  6. Nathanael gives no indication of having sought out “Old Mate”’s side of the story.  How does he know OM was desperately grasping in an attempt to keep opera for the elite? Read more carefully than I did at first and you might discern that Nathanael is just imagining that bit.
  7. When I went to Ernani there was an announcement asking that we remain in our seats until invited by the staff to leave.  I’d be surprised if there wasn’t such an announcement at The Merry Widow.
  8. “Bravo” is for a male performer; “brava” for a female.  You can also say “bravi” for male or male and female performers (plural), and (esoteric: I only just found this out – now I will never slip into Cosi fan Tutti again) “brave” for women in the plural.  That’s interesting isn’t it?  A fun thing to learn, like the special acknowledgement of the orchestra after the final interval or the prima donna leading the conductor onto the stage at the end of the curtain calls. Oh no! Fuddy-duddies!
  9. Alan Jones was cast in the 2015 Sydney run of Opera Australia’s production of Anything Goes.  Terracini was artistic director at the time.
  10. There are so many reasons why opera patronage is dwindling. The biggest one is almost certainly expense.

Maybe my suspicions are unfounded. Maybe Nathanael found out about the incident from others, Terracini just supplied minimal information in response to his inquiries, and all the editorialising is Nathanael’s alone. On the other hand, any publicity is good publicity, or so they say. And if you can get in a swipe against the fuddy-duddies, well, that would probably suit Mr Terracini just fine.

2 Responses to “Opera news”

  1. lamaliminalbeing Says:

    My suspicion is that the younger audience LT is courting is otherwise meaningfully engaged in progressive artistic pursuits being delivered by the likes of Sydney Chamber Opera, and more recently The Cooperative.

    Standing ovations are an interesting phenomenon. *Reflex* standing ovations are a meaningless Americanism. I don’t know what the collective ‘vibe’ was at the performance in question, but you’d have to say it was badly mishandled by all parties, the Kidmans, and the 67yr old and his 53 yr old male companion, and now OA, in what ended up a complete waste of police time and resources.

    If there is a message OA should be pushing, it’s that all are welcome and the whole point of any art form is to bring about joining, not create divisions. Tolerance. See the mission statement of “The Cooperative”, That’s where my money is going.

    • marcellous Says:

      As I read it, the 53-year-old is Keith (“born 26 October 1967” – Wikipedia).
      Agree about *reflex* standing ovations. Judging from comments on the story (expressing the view that anything other than a standing ovation is not real applause) they are spreading here – though no way of telling where those particular commenters come from or if they ever go or will to the opera.
      “Tolerance” is great as is give and take but unfortunately not every situation can be a win-win. I would feel uncomfortable standing in front of others who are sitting. That would mean that standing ovations could only start from the back row. Experience tells me that this rarely occurs because leading types (let alone celebrities who have been invited, for example) who want to exhibit/express via an SO are likely to be towards the front. So stand-but-sit-if-asked-to seems a reasonable compromise.

      My real grudge with this story is how it has been recruited into Lyndon’s war against the fuddy-duddies where he positions himself as the champion of the common punter – of a piece with his putting down of fat lady singing etc in his Peggy Glanville-Hicks address.

      Co-operative is great but have to observe these are start-up ventures a bit like programs/apps which begin free but will in the end have to ask for money more seriously or will otherwise be unsustainable without an endless supply of, in effect, interns.

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