The Battle of the Sopranos
The opera house has always been rowdier than the concert hall, but even so the riot at the King’s Theatre Haymarket on June 6 1727 has gone down in history. On stage were two great rival sopranos, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, who fought a “horrid and bloody battle”, according to one eyewitness. As did their supporters.
Belgium in uproar
Auber’s opera La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) caused barely a murmur when it opened in Paris in 1829. But when it was performed at La Monnaie Opera House in Brussels in 1830, revolutionary feelings were in the air, and the aria “Sacred Love of One’s Country” sparked the July revolution that led to Belgian independence.
Scandal in Vienna
Just two months before The Rite of Spring opened in Paris, the venerable Musikverein concert hall in Vienna was rent with cries of “Send them to the madhouse!” and “Throw them out!” The police were called and one man prosecuted for throwing a punch (which according to one observer was the most musical sound of the evening). The cause of the upset was Alban Berg’s magical Altenberg Lieder.
Listen to some of Alban Berg's Altenberg Lieder
The Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was the scene of another scandal, 41 years after The Rite of Spring premiere. This time the cause was Déserts, the latest work by the wild-haired visionary Edgard Varèse, who’d already caused quite a few scandals in the 1920s. What upset the audience was the mixing of electronic and orchestral sounds, which at that time was beyond the pale.
Reich fails to rock
Like Auber’s Muette de Portici, the first performance of Steve Reich’s Four Organs, in 1971, passed off without demur. But at a performance in New York in 1973, audiences were less patient with its relentless repetitions. One of the performers was the young Michael Tilson Thomas, who recalls that one woman “walked down the aisle and repeatedly banged her head on the stage, saying 'Stop, stop – I confess’.”
Listen to Steve Reich's Four Organs