What is it about first nights? Does anyone enjoy them? And in that I include audience members.
Let’s get the audience out of the way first. It’s not such a problem here in Amsterdam but certainly in many continental houses first night audiences are largely comprised of great swathes of punters who have no interest in opera other than seeing it as an opportunity for showing off their newest wife/man/frock/earrings/handbag etc etc. And that’s just the men. You can smell their indifference across the footlights. Try playing comedy to that lot. It’s about as much fun as pinning medals on a Rottweiler.
Then there are all the opera professionals who make a habit of attending premieres, largely I always suspect so that they can scoff all the free food and booze that’s on offer at the post-show reception. These are the agents, casting directors, intendants and all their ilk who also make a point of looking straight through anyone they see backstage whom they consider to be beneath their interest or professional sphere. That’s usually most of the cast for starters. Unhindered by having to get out of costume these freeloaders are always first to get to the buffet table, so much so that I have been to some post-show parties where they’ve run out of comestibles by the time the performers have made it to the party. So, you stand there, clutching a forsaken sausage roll and a glass of warm white wine, insecure about how the show has gone for you (because the ritzy and indifferent audience is hardly likely to demonstrate any enthusiasm for anyone but big-name stars) and try to make conversation with people who spend most of their time looking over your shoulder to see if there’s anyone more important in the room with whom they should be talking.
Then there are the critics. Hardly there to have a good time are they? Or so it would seem. The least said about them the better.
And finally there are the performers themselves. Wracked with nerves most of them, their careers are on the line. (They are always on the line.) Even the most comprehensive of rehearsal periods cannot prepare you for the sudden and awful intrusion of an audience. “Like having strangers in your living-room” someone once called it. I’ve never heard anyone sing their best at a first night. I’ve even heard it said that the anxiety causes blood vessels to expand in your neck which in turn hinders by several percent your ability to produce sound. If that’s just a singers’ myth, certainly it is very hard to feel as relaxed and in control as you would really like. And who came blame us? There are thousands of damn people watching us and a fair percentage of them, like Romans at the coliseum, have come to see us fail.
Nope, they’re no good, first nights but you have to do them anyway. But if I’m buying tickets to a show, I’ll always avoid the first night if I can.