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Sydney and Melbourne: a tale of two audiences

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 23 November 2011

How do people behave in public these days? Once, societies like Australia had strict rules. They were more understood than set out anywhere. In church, in school, or at a concert, you behaved. If you didn't, someone would correct you, smack you and, if necessary, chuck you out. I've interviewed men who speak of boys kept in line by fathers, mothers, uncles and other men. If all this failed, they said, a policeman would ''kick you up the bum''.

Today these rules are under attack, if they still exist at all. At my Bondi gym, there are rules displayed, and use of mobile phones is restricted. Groaning is forbidden in some gyms. But generally these days, people do what they want.

People have their new phone or iPod and, by heavens, they are going to use it, talk as loudly as they like to their friends and get their messages. God help the people around them on a bus, train or cafe.


I was incredulous when I saw how people behaved at a baptism held during a church service. People laughed out loud, called out to each other, flashed cameras. Mobiles rang. Nobody objected. Nobody was cautioned or thrown out.

Which brings me to the opera. I usually go on a Saturday afternoon in Sydney with all the other geriatrics. And we behave fairly well. The loudest sound during the performances recently were the gasps of excitement every time Teddy Tahu Rhodes (as Don Giovanni) started to take his clothes off.

At a recent evening performance of La Boheme in Sydney, we had a younger audience. And young people do pretty much anything they like. So we had cameras flashing many times before the curtain went up. Some obviously liked a scene or two during the opera, and flashed their camera to photograph it. Nobody objected. People talked here and there. Mimi's tiny hand was frozen and she had a little cough. She was answered by a chorus from the audience. Coughing to the left of me, coughing to the right of me; it volleyed and thundered. When there was a break of maybe four minutes between acts, people pulled out their iPads and iPods. How charming! Friends say they have sat next to people munching crisps, unwrapping chocolates and swigging on a litre of lemonade. I wondered if it's the way everyone behaves at the opera most of the time.Or does it just happen in Sydney?

So. I went to see the Melbourne premiere of La Traviata. It's a larger capacity audience in Melbourne: 2085 to 1507 in Sydney. The Melbourne audience was quiet and attentive. There were no camera flashes and no iPads evident. The only misbehaviour was from the young guy in front of me constantly mauling, kissing and caressing his sweetheart. But then we forgive lovers anything, I suppose.

Adrian Collette, chief executive of Opera Australia, made three points.

First, the core audience in Sydney and Melbourne is similar. They hissed an ''in your face'' production of Tosca and they gasp at Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Second, Melbourne audiences are more attentive. They are expected to sit quietly through 15 hours of Wagner's cycle, The Ring. Sydney has a lower attention span. Third, perhaps the cameras in Sydney are used by tourists having their night at the famous Opera House. But as for cameras flashing and iPads winking in the theatre - ''it shouldn't happen''.


Why are we having problems just now? People think they have the God-given right to do anything they want. If they are stopped from doing whatever it is they feel like, they will complain that they are being oppressed, or discriminated against. I have had my share of complaints by university students who complained, in barely comprehensible English, that ''he did discriminate me''. People do almost anything, anywhere, because nobody is game to stop them. Should I call out at some fool with a flashing camera: ''Hey, you cretin, you're not in your lounge room, turn your bloody camera off or I'll…'' What? I'm not a mountain of muscle and I might get smashed in the face by someone on drugs or charged up with alcohol.

Well, a line must be drawn. Otherwise you won't see the opera for the flashing cameras - or hear it for the fools calling out. At university, we used to throw noisy chatterers out of lectures. House management, do your job please - for everyone's sake. Especially in Sydney.

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This article first appeared in The Age on 22 November 2011. 

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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