What not to (cough) do during the opera

Went to the opera Saturday night. It was great, my companions informed me. I have to take their word for it because for me much of it was drowned out by the constant coughing of a woman in the row behind me.

When I say constant, I exaggerate a bit. There were pauses, some of them lasting two or three minutes, in the onslaught of throat eruptions, some as loud, it seemed, as pistol shots. But my exaggeration is minimal — the interruptions lasted from the first to the last bars of music.

So far, I have not developed the primary symptoms of a cold, but my evening of Gounod was a shambles.

The first precept of opera behaviour

In any case, it’s time to come out and say it: in an opera, coughing, especially continual coughing, is forbidden.


Now, I suspect that for some opera goers, particularly those with insecurities, coughing is mandatory. Like people who whistle tunelessly on the street, they are compelled to inform their neighbours that they are casually at home and not at all self-conscious. Interruptions from these people are restricted to the first moments of music.

But some coughers are actually sick. They bought their tickets weeks ago and have the bad luck to come down with a cold just in time for a performance. So don’t these sufferers deserve my sympathy rather than my wrath?

Well, no. There are options.


First option: medication. If you have a cough that you suspect will disturb others, get a load of cough-suppressing meds and take them before and during the opera. (But don’t unwrap meds in the midst of the performance: paper-rustling is a no-no too.)

Second option: don’t go. This is a tough one. Many operas are sold out and getting tickets to a later performance can be impossible. You may have to turn in your ticket as a donation and receive only a tax receipt as compensation. But your cough would destroy your evening anyway.

Third option: leave. If your coughing attacks you by surprise once the opera has begun, just get up and go out. If you are not in an aisle seat, you may have to wait until intermission to do this, but that at least will give some relief to those about you. And you don’t have to miss the final act. Most theatres have lounge areas with high definition monitors so you can catch the action in comfort and in the noisy companionship of fellow sufferers. Not as good as live action, but better than disturbing a crowd.

Incidentally, if you do disturb them, that crowd will not complain. Though they should. Opera-goers are polite. They reserve criticism for the people on the stage rather than those in the audience. So if you do cough your way through a whole opera, you may never be aware of the seething rage of those around you.

About aharmlessdrudge

Way back during the late Bronze age -- actually it was the 1950s -- all of us in high school had to take a vocational test to determine our interests and, supposedly, our future careers. I cannot remember the outcome, but I do recall one question that gave me pause. "If you were to win a Nobel prize, would it be in literature or in physics?" I hesitated over the question: although I enjoyed mathematics and science more than English class, I did have a couple of unfinished (and very bad) novels hidden away at home. I cannot remember what I chose back then, but the dilemma followed me to university, where I switched from mathematics to English and -- after a five-year stint in journalism -- back to mathematics. I recently retired as a professor of statistics. Retirement. What a good chance to revive my literary ambitions. I have finished a novel -- more about that in good time -- and a rubble of drafts of articles about mathematics and statistics is taking up space on my hard disk.
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