Scrap the Overture!

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?Overture

6 thoughts on “Scrap the Overture!

  1. I don’t think it is so much ‘Scrap the Overture’ as ‘Educate the Audience’!!. I find that the average age of the audience, the show they are about to see and the area in which the performance is taking place all make a big difference. I quite agree noise is annoying!!. Maybe something in the programme explaining the Overture is part of the production, signs front of house, you have to advertise strobe lighting why not request silence during the Overture?????? On another tack ‘whooping’ during the performance also annoys me very much – where have theatre manners gone????

    1. I’m not so sure about the audience demographics. Whilst I would have expected a younger audience to make more noise, the people who were talking through the Carmen overture included grey haired gentlemen in jackets and ties! The whole population has lost the habit of being quiet for music.

      (Whooping deserves a blog post all to itself!)

  2. I had to silence the 18-20 year olds in the row behind who were booing the overture a recent amature production in Hampshire. Clearly unnaceptable behaviour but it highlights that the general attitutes of the public have changed. Shows must adapt or face further decline in audience numbers. For amature productions, the musical dirctor needs to shorten the overture to suit a modern impatient audience, especially the younger demographic, who want immediate gratification. In my view this means an overture paired down to a third or even a quarter of the orgional length and kept to the really exiciting highlights. This is an unfortunately consequence of society today but much better than loss of these shows completely as the older generation begins to form less of the audience.

  3. Manners went to the dogs when they began to allow the audience to carry their glasses of booze, beer, wine into the auditorium. The TV generation is used to wandering about the home to get a drink or a snack while the programme is on and transfer the same behaviour to the theatre. Educate the audience don’t dumb down by dumping the overture.

  4. What do you feel about non-orchestral overtures? We have just an electronic piano and the maestro struggles through the overtures without making the luxurious sound of an orchestra. He enjoys his time in the limelight but I am hating the thinness of the sound. Should I tactfully suggest not bothering? And what about directors who put a ton of action throughout the overture to give people something to look at? Isn’t that defeating the object?

    1. Some shows have been running action through the overture for a long time – think of Rogers & Hammerstein and the Waltz that opens Carousel. Yes, for those of us who value the music highly, it’s a distraction, on the other hand, if it reminds the audience that the show has started, I think that’s a good thing.

      As for the piano reduction overture, I would advocate keeping it short. Very short!

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