Tough Crowds: 4 Wild Performances in Opera House History

Pulling the curtain on some of history’s most riotous performances.

Throughout music history, there have been plenty of performances where the real show occurred off-stage, resulting in riots and controversy that would be sure to garner a viral hashtag or two nowadays. Grab a front row seat as we explore some of the most disruptive and infamous shows in music history.

1 La Muette de Portici
A “Revolutionary” Performance

Based on the Neapolitan uprising against Spanish rule in 1647, it is only fitting that La Muette de Portici’s climax prompted the beginning of the Belgian Revolution. On August 25, 1830 during a revival performance of the opera, the man playing Masaniello—the historic leader of the Naples revolt—yelled “To Arms!” on stage and the audience followed the order.

The performance of La Muette de Portici in 1830, Thierry Bosquet (From the collection of La Monnaie/De Munt)

This opera can’t take full credit for protests that kicked off the Belgian Revolution in this theater, as they were indeed premeditated, with the theater merely functioning as a convenient stage for the revolution’s opening salvo. So much for the fourth wall.

Episode of the September Days 1830, on the Grand Place of Brussels, Gustaf Wappers, 1835 (From the collection of Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

2 Tannhäuser’s Paris Debut
A Hissing Audience & Growling Stomachs

While the infamous “Paris version” of Tannhäuser didn’t lead to a revolutionary secession, political unrest played a role in this bungled performance as well. Tannhäuser’s Paris premier seemed doomed before it began. An overall aversion toward Austria prompted the audience to hiss and boo throughout the performance.

Tannhäuser and the Singers' Contest at Wartburg, Bettina Stöß, 2008 (From the collection of Deutsche Oper Berlin)

The “Paris version” of the play included a ballet sequence per venue tradition, but its inclusion in the first act frustrated French aristocracy as it cut into their dinner plans. The performance was derailed once the audience got to whistle blowing. Dinner was then served.

The Feast of Venus, Peter Paul Rubens, 1636/1637 (From the collection of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien)

3 Rite of Spring
Class War on the Dance Floor

Want to know one of the most knockout performances ever to grace the stage? Perhaps it’s when the audience of Rite of Spring resorted to fisticuffs. Once again, ills between socioeconomic classes were to blame. After the aristocracy began disrupting the show due to its rather eccentric music and choreography, the Bohemian set—eager to defend anything unconventional—literally fought back. “Knock ‘em dead,” indeed.

Polianot by Adi Paz, Gadi Dagon, 2013-08-29 (From the collection of Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre

4 Parade Ballet
Choreography & Cubism—an Unfriendly Mix

Another case of aesthetic taste resulting in conflict is Erik Satie’s ballet Parade. The show featured Picasso-designed costumes which were beautiful to look at, but impossible to dance in. This prompted many members of the audience to jeer and yell in disdain. Thankfully, supportive members of the audience drowned them out with applause.

Picasso's costumes for the Parade ballet (From the collection of Sound and Music)
Written by Joseph Sutton
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