Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, The Merry Widow at the Opera House

When Nic and Keith went to the opera, high drama

There is typically more than enough drama at an opera night - along with all the dying and singing and histrionics on stage. But things really went up a notch or eleven last month at The Merry Widow in the Opera House.

No, the show wasn't particularly exciting, and no, actually, nobody died. Instead, it was a dispute over theatre etiquette that triggered the calamity and exposed the larger issue opera faces, which would be very dull if it were not for who was involved.

Australia's favorite pair, Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman, seem to be crazy keen opera fans and so they slipped into a Sydney performance with Kidman's mom Janelle of the three-act Merry Widow extravaganza. They thoroughly appreciated all of the papers.

So much so that at the end of the show, our Keith was jumping to his feet for a good old-fashioned standing O. Nicole followed suit quickly and most of the crowd soon joined them... Except for a gentlemen seated with a popular couple behind him.

After a performance of The Merry Widow, opera singer Virgilio Marino (left) with Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban
After a performance of The Merry Widow, opera singer Virgilio Marino (left) with Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban

That night, Spies told PS in the audience that this unique opera lover took umbrage at the fact that the Kidman-Urbans were on their feet and had some words with them. Keith clarified that they were providing a standing ovation, a gesture of the show's approval, and proceeded to clap and stand.

The gentleman allegedly swatted the Academy award-winning Kidman with his program at this point, causing Urban to accuse the man of attacking his wife. Urban called his burly guards quickly as a flash to escort the couple and Kidman's mother out of the crowd, while Opera House security was sent in to get the aggrieved opera lover back.

Apparently, Kidman was clearly disturbed by the incident, and the heavy ones at the Opera House also had to be because someone called the police.

Police media confirm that, following rumors of an altercation, officers assigned to Sydney City Police Area Command were summoned to the Opera House that night.

Police were told that when an altercation broke out, a 53-year-old man and a 67-year-old man were both visiting the entertainment center. NSW Police said in a statement, "Officers spoke to both men and no further action was taken."

Opera Australia chief Lyndon Terracini escorted the Kidman-Urbans through the back of the house and out of the relative safety of the stage door after the drama subsided, where they graciously posed for a photograph with the star of the play, Virgilio Marino, considering the ordeal they had just been through. PS reached out to Kidman and Urban leaders to make sure they were fine, but heard nothing back.

This whole thing is a rolling yarn now, one of my favourites I've ever been told about. But more seriously, when you watch a 116-year-old piece of theatre inside the most popular building in Sydney, it poses the crucial problem of what is and is not proper etiquette.

Standing ovations at the opera were considered a major no-no back in the olden days. To stand up and possibly block your fellow patron's view of the bows of the performers was the height of rudeness. As long as your ass stayed attached to the seat, loud clapping, shouting bravo (for the men) and brava (for the women), and even loudly stamping your feet were all OK.

The opera theatre should be exclusively reserved for the stage.
The opera theatre should be exclusively reserved for the stage.

Social standards, however, have evolved. Standing ovations are not only entirely appropriate but also welcomed in 2021. When fans express gratitude for the three-hour performing odyssey they've enjoyed, the performers love to see all those masked faces step five to six feet up.

For your program, swatting individuals is neither appropriate nor encouraged regardless of whether or not the individual on the receiving end has won an Oscar. At the moment, Kidman may have been angry, but she is a big girl and has been on the receiving end of some awful reviews, so it is very probable that she will get past this incident and find her way again to the opera (the upcoming John Bell production of Tosca is wonderful and she should take her mum if she is free).

Imagine it was someone's first time at the Opera House, and in an effort to keep the art form reserved for the elite, they had to suffer the humiliating experience of being punished by a curmudgeonly old bloke desperately clinging on to ancient opera etiquette.

I once showed up in jeans and sneakers at the opera and the looks of disdain at some of the well-heeled fuddy dudes in my pants may have split the threads. The fact that I love opera, that I've been the youngest person in the building for more than 30 years, and that I'm leaving and telling all my other young friends that it's completely lost on them. They'll all be dead soon and if young people don't go to the opera, we will need to start calling for the Alan Jones School of Conservative Thinking to be established because there's not going to be anything to put in it.

It needs to inspire new audiences to see its productions if Opera Australia is to thrive and prosper. By performing hokey populist operas and musicals, it lures newbies in. It continues despite copping criticism for this policy because it needs to make money just to remain alive, let alone recover all the performing arts suffered in the pandemic from the enormous financial hit.

The old mate and his programme are part of the declining cause for opera patronage. As much as Opera Australia wants to keep up with the times, its audience does so too.