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The possibility of being an audience

Sometimes being part of an audience is unexpectedly moving. Sometimes it’s irritating. It’s not something we thought about a lot before the coronavirus pandemic. It was taken for granted.

Musicians rehearse at the Liceu opera house in Barcelona in June, 2020.
Musicians rehearse at the Liceu opera house in Barcelona in June, 2020.EMILIO MORENATTI/Associated Press

Last summer, in Barcelona’s Liceu opera house, a string quartet gave a concert for 2,292 potted plants. According to the theater’s artistic director, filling the seats with plants was conceptual artist Eugenio Ampudia’s way of representing “an audience deprived of the possibility of being an audience.”

The possibility of being an audience. It’s not something we thought about a lot before the coronavirus pandemic. It was taken for granted. You show up at a theater or stadium or concert hall, and find your way to your seat. You’re there for the performance but you are also part of a serendipitous collection of people gathered to spend a few hours together at close quarters, and their actions and reactions become part of how you experience the event.


The couple making out in the balcony of Symphony Hall during the “St. Matthew Passion” (maybe they’ve misunderstood the title of the piece?). The fans in the next section of Yankee Stadium getting into a brawl and ripping the metal railings out of the concrete. That awkward moment during Handel’s “Messiah” when the Hallelujah chorus starts and some people stand and some people don’t and even though it is not a singalong performance the woman behind you is merrily belting out “King of Kings and Lord of Lords…”

Sometimes being part of an audience is unexpectedly moving. The man who carries his paralyzed wife down the aisle at the theater and gently positions her in her seat. The beautiful old woman at the ballet, whom you think you recognize from photographs: a legendary former dancer. The woman sitting next to you at a performance of Handel’s “Jephtha,” who cries while a boy soprano sings the Angel’s aria and who, when the song ends, turns to you and whispers, “He’s my son.”


Sometimes it’s irritating. The people behind you in the movies explaining to each other, in loud whispers, what’s happening on the screen (a cake with candles is presented to a character, and your neighbor announces, “It’s his birthday”). The person who sits in front of you wearing a hat. The person behind you who is knitting all through the concert, clackety-clackety-clack. The cell phones ringing and beeping and lighting up.

Over the past year, my husband and I have discovered what it’s like to view events alone in our living room, signing up for a pre-recorded concert and sitting on our couch in front of a screen and speakers. We don’t have to get dressed up. We don’t have to worry about parking, or figure out how to time our ride over on the T. We don’t have to stand in line for the bathroom. We’ve been moved by the music, while worrying about how these musical groups will come through the pandemic.

But we are so aware of everything that’s missing. The pleasure of seeing what people are wearing. The possibility of running into friends at intermission. The chance to eavesdrop on mysterious conversations, and to speculate about them afterward on the way home (what on earth could have gotten the woman behind us banned for life from a Boston steakhouse?). The shared experience of a live performance unfolding in a common space in real time — the acoustics of it, the risk-taking skill of the musicians, the sense that the performers and the listeners are feeding each other, the unpredictable jostling with other human beings.


After that botanical concert in Barcelona a year ago, the plants were distributed to health care workers, to thank them for caring for COVID patients. You can see a video of the concert online. It’s whimsical — the piece is Puccini’s “Chrysanthemums” — but there is also a gravity and mystery to it, and a sadness. The plants are like an audience of ghosts — mute reminders of the people who would have been sitting in those seats if the pandemic had not shut everything down, and also of all the people who have been lost.

The plants are a collective mass of green, and a gathering of individuals. Some are spiky, some are small and round, some look elaborately costumed with fronds and feathery leaves. As we start to make our halting way out of the past year’s isolation, the plants’ number and variety, their rapt silence, their proximity to one another are a poignant evocation of the presence, and the absence, of an audience.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe.