The winter’s competitive audience coughing season opened last night with an exciting and fiercely fought contest in the stalls at Covent Garden Royal Opera House. With the last of the warm weather finally over, the throat clearing challenge can now begin in earnest in theatres and concert halls throughout Britain, and will reach a climax in late February.
Last night’s opener at the ROH is already being hailed as a classic. George Jones, undefeated audience champion 2007/08, set the scene: ‘The season tends to open with something quiet, and an early opera such as La Calisto with a small chamber orchestra is perfect. Although you’ve had your flu jab and the weather’s still mild, you’re still coming from cool damp air into a warm dry auditorium and you’re probably out of breath from coming up the stairs. Someone usually cracks almost immediately. Perhaps a stray bit of peanut or a slight cold and soon a ripple of coughing spreads across the stalls…’
George said that the quiet start to the season was common to all branches of the sport, as a way of eliminating lesser players. The instrumental league might open with a string quartet, or the theatrical with a Pinter play. ‘I’ve known actors not to end a pause till they get at least one good cough,’ said George. Things become noisier as the winter progresses, tempting even champions into a small ‘harrumph’ during pieces such as the Anvil Chorus.
‘The 2007 Euro championships involved a sudden-death staging of the entire Ring Cycle,’ said George. ‘I sat through the first two operas without so much as a murmur, but three hours into Siegfried I nodded off and woke up with a snore – which turned into a major fit before you could say ‘Zubes’. Fortunately I took seventeen others down with me. I wouldn’t have survived Götterdämmerung anyway, so in a way it was a relief.’
The sport suffered from accusations of widespread drug abuse last season, but the list of permitted substances is very clear and strictly enforced with the last person testing positive for Benylin being banned for three years. The season continues with La Bohème next weekend, where Mimi’s on-stage death from consumption will add an extra twist to proceedings.