Is it just me? Am I the only person who actually likes overtures? I went to see Eastleigh Operatic and Musical Society doing The Wizard of Oz a few weeks ago. The lights went down, the auditorium fell silent, the orchestra struck up and, after a brief pause, members of the audience went to visit their neighbours. They started in a polite whisper, but then they needed to make themselves heard above the other whispers as well as the music, and so the volume went up to normal conversational levels. It was the same at the Theatre Royal, Winchester for The Witches of Eastwick. As soon as the band started on the overture, the talking started. Not only that, but the rustling. One might expect a surreptitious sweet to be unwrapped, but, from the noise they made, the people in the row behind me seemed to have brought a takeaway meal. I was beginning to anticipate the smell of sweet-and-sour sauce and the crunching of prawn crackers. That noise didn’t subside until half way through the first song.
I may be a bit old fashioned in this respect, but I think the overture is part of the show. It’s something the composer has worked hard to create: a showcase for his craft shorn of all the distractions of set, lights, costumes, choreography, plot and lyrics. I had the privilege of being at the Nuffield Theatre for Southampton Operatic Society’s production of Carmen. Bizet’s prelude and entr’acte music became the orchestral Carmen Suite Number 1 – a popular concert piece in its own right – and the audience talked through it.
An overture is an hors d’oeuvre – the first taste of the excitement of the banquet to come. It gives an anticipation of the themes and moods to come. There are musicians in the pit who have spent thousands of hours acquiring skills that few of us possess. There they are, working their socks off, sawing their violins in half, and all we do is to treat them as if they were background music on a supermarket PA system.
And that, in my view, is the cause. We’re so saturated in music and so used to treating it as background that some of us apply the same standards to the theatre orchestra as we do to our car radio, listening only if there’s nothing else to take our attention.
So what are we going to do about it?
Scrap the Overture
Do you need an overture? The audience apparently doesn’t. Certainly, if you’re in the position of having to perform to recorded music, then there’s no benefit from one. If you need the punters to quieten down, dowse the lights, play a fanfare or a loud chord and just raise the curtain.
If you have ushers in your auditorium, you could always use them to call for a bit of ‘ush. How about doing it in the manner of a silent film: spotlight a “Quiet Please!” sign on the apron stage. Alternatively, give an announcement of the theatre P.A.: “Pray silence for the overture.”
Uncover the Orchestra
The human brain thrives on visual signals; we prefer to have something to look at. In many theatres, the orchestra is hidden in a deep pit. (That was the case at The Point for The Wizard of Oz.) Often – typically in small theatres and for electric instruments – the band will play behind the stage (the case for the Witches of Eastwick). The audience has nothing to look at. What about putting multiple cameras on the musicians and screening the performance to the audience? Would that encourage them to enjoy the music? Has anyone tried that?