Modest Mussorgsky
Modest Mussorgsky
Many composers enjoyed a drop of the hard stuff. Johann Sebastian Bach may have been fuelled by coffee – he even wrote a cantata praising its virtues – but he also indulged in a mug or two of beer. Mozart loved a drop of punch. Mussorgsky [right] loved his vodka rather too much. But what about when alcohol has an impact on classical music concerts? Alexander Glazunov was allegedly drunk whilst conducting the disastrous première of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony, but I’m thinking more from an audience perspective.

My last week at the BBC Proms was heady for several reasons – where else would you get a four-hour Rossini rarity, Verdi’s Requiem and four concerts by the Staatskapelles Berlin and Dresden within a week of each other? But my head was also spinning due to the effects of alcohol. Not that I was over-indulging myself, you understand, but rather due to the practice of the Royal Albert Hall allowing patrons to bring drinks into the auditorium. Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony was ‘consumed’ amidst a fug of sweat and warm beer pervading from the gentlemen in front of me. In Verdi’s Requiem, it was the aroma of red wine which tickled my nostrils. I enjoy a glass of wine as much as the next person, but why the need to drink it during a performance?

Not only is the smell distracting, but the noisy disruption it creates spreads even further. You often hear glasses dropped – a whole tray of cups and saucers reportedly smashed to the floor during Bach’s Mass in B minor – often emanating from the occupants of the Loggia boxes skirting the Stalls. At the end of the Dies irae section of Verdi’s Requiem, the patrons in Box 24, directly behind me, decided it was time to (noisily) top up their wine glasses. It wasn’t just the drink. As the plaintive tones of the Libera me began, the cheeseboard was passed around too. Verdi “con Brie-o” – shameless pun © Yehuda Shapiro! – completely ruined the spirituality of the moment. During the Adagio of Bruckner 6, a packet of crisps passed along a row in the Arena was very nearly confiscated by irate audience members!

It’s not just the Royal Albert Hall. It’s the same at the Coliseum and at Sadler’s Wells. Why is the practice of patrons taking food and drink into the hall allowed? Undoubtedly, it’s linked to revenue, raking in the money at the bars and kiosks. Perhaps there is not enough time during intervals for folk to consume their drinks and snacks. Perhaps there aren’t enough staff to handle the queues. Perhaps patrons should be a little more organised and pre-order for the interval to save time. Or maybe they should just make arrangements to dine before or after the concert rather than during it!

I’m not alone. According to a survey conducted by Mortar London, “54% of Brits said rustling food wrappers and noisy eaters were the most annoying factor when watching a show”. Help is at hand though – heaven preserve us – via Silent Snacks. Theatre app TodayTix has worked with Teatime Productions to create a whole range of foodstuffs with names like Silent Slices, Anti-Gas Lime and Mint Drink and – I’m not making this up – Muffled Truffles. When the press release landed yesterday, I thought it was a joke. At £2 a (not so silent) pop, it seems not.

Eating and drinking during a performance – excluding a glug of water in hot weather – is completely unnecessary and should be discouraged. Not only is it distracting to fellow audience members, it is distracting – and disrespectful – to the performers. All hail the eagle-eyed ushers at venues like the Royal Opera House where even bringing an ice-cream tub into the auditorium during the interval brings about a swift rebuke. I’d extend the punishment further… but I don’t think a taser would get past the front door security checks. I’ll make do with a Paddington Stare.