The Secret Lives of Ushers
We seldom pay attention to ushers. In “The Natural History of the Theatre,” Theodor Adorno’s otherwise extravagant sociology of concert-going, the usher receives only a glancing mention: a missed opportunity for a writer who discerned the ideological contradictions and atavistic energies of music in a thousand minor details, from gales of applause to foyerside finger buffets.
I’ve never paid much attention to ushers either, beyond customary pleasantries and politesse. Their seamless work is mostly unnoticed by design. But in 2018, my partner and I attended a performance of “From the House of the Dead” at London’s Royal Opera House. We were enjoying Krzysztof Warlikowski’s gritty realization of Janáček’s opera about Siberian prisoners when she began to feel a little faint. She excused herself, protesting that it was nothing serious—I should stay and enjoy the show. After dithering, I followed a few moments later. The usher had given her a glass of water and a cold compress. She was feeling much better, they told us; they were about to reseat her in a vacant box—would I like to join her?
Ushers look after us. They keep us safe. This has been especially true in the tentative return to concertgoing in the UK. Ushers kept people distant; they staggered entrances and exits. Meek audiences deferred to gentle instructions about where to sit and when to move. But they were some of the early casualties in the pandemic’s effect on the sector. The first round of redundancies at the Royal Opera House jettisoned all casual staff in July 2020, terminating the ushers’ contracts.
This is rather unedifying given their sacred office; St. Peter is their apotheosis. Usher is a variant of the French huisier, from the Latin ostiarius, a custodian of the doors. The role comes from early modern theater, where Randle Cotgrave’s 1611 dictionary also has them as “audiencers.” The Gentleman Usher would be among the most active figures running an aristocratic house, supervising honored guests in performances, courtly masques, or other entertainments.
In their book on Shakespeare’s prologues, Douglas Bruster and Robert Weimann equate the usher with those famous opening speeches. Ushers in the early modern theater would, as now, give out abstracts or synopses of the play, and play an integral role in setting the scene for the performance to come; settling the audience into both their seats and the imagined world onstage. As today, they policed the doors, keeping a roiling public outside and the drama inside (for those who had paid for it).
Bruster and Weimann see the usher as a go-between. There is no doubt a frisson of drama in their outfits and summons—particularly in houses that retain more luxurious and elaborate livery. Alex Akhurst, an usher at English National Opera, told me that he finds particular pleasure when on duty outside, welcoming guests into the London Coliseum’s grand foyer in a dark, substantial reefer coat. The ceremonial character of the job is a taste of the theatricality to come. At the ROH, the ushers used to wear red suit jackets that hinted reassuringly at the plush seating inside and the royal seal in their name. In 2018, the design was updated, echoing their substantial “Open Up” refurbishment of the building (all easygoing glass and hotel-lobby marble). They now wear a plain navy suit, green shirt, and gold-trimmed lapels. More approachable, utilitarian, and understated, but also more corporate and less characterful.
Ushers must be tuned in to the ebb and flow of drama and audience. Director Paul Higgins, who years ago ushered at the National Theater, spoke admiringly of ushers who can coordinate the discreet opening of the house doors to admit latecomers just as a grand aria finishes and rapturous applause begins. In this respect the usher is placed ambiguously between performer and onlooker. The usher must have cat-like tread, the deft elegance of a courtier, and the stealth of an assassin.
Ushers, Bruster and Weimann say, are liminal, “invested with a kind of authority, yet an authority that was neither permanent nor simply given.” Managing the turbulent public is no easy task. The usher’s admonishing torch can quell the bright screen of an iPhone or silence a chattering couple. But the treatment meted out to them by wealthy opera-goers–who can be rude, condescending, and entitled, just as in any area of the service industry–reminds us that they are precariously perched.
Most of the ushers I interviewed spoke warmly of the public. Eleanor Strutt, a graduate of Trinity-Laban Conservatoire and formerly a ROH usher, recalled the “chocolate lady” who brought sweets for the ushers. But another former usher there, Marcin Kokowski, spoke of rudeness from a patron who would not return to their assigned seat. “They just refused to move,” he told me. “They were very abrupt and impolite. I just felt belittled.”
Aggressive theatregoers seems to be a growing problem in the London theater world. A 2019 article in The Daily Telegraph mentioned an usher at the Royal Albert Hall who had been spat at by a customer, and angry patrons wishing death and illness on ushers who refused them entry. (The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union called for more action from management on the issue; the Society of London Theatres even introduced body cameras for front-of-house staff.) Such behavior would be unacceptable anywhere, but seems doubly cruel when, as Kokowski told me, for many ushers the theater is like a second home. “I literally wrote my dissertation in one of the rehearsal rooms,” he said.
Despite all this, ushers still get people to their seats. Today the instruction to do so mostly comes from a pre-recorded announcement, instead of a heraldic shout from a besuited individual. Technology has usurped the usher’s role as kind of town crier (one of the role’s more arcane meanings). This is a pity. Such announcements—“Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats. Tonight’s performance of ‘La traviata’ will continue in two minutes”—have the bland, unmoving reassurance of a departure lounge.
But at many opera houses, ushers still patrol the bars and corridors, ringing a bell to chide us back inside. The sound of bells, in myriad traditions, are always summoners of supernatural influence and calls to community. In the theater they gather the audience together and call forth the strange, alchemical atmosphere that makes a live performance.
Staying on top of the doors is still taken very seriously by ushers. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was once barred from taking the stage in Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” by a band of overzealous ushers. (In the end she barged past to sing.) Today their duties also include checking bags for contraband sandwiches, in order to protect the profit margins of lucrative outsourced catering operations. The bag inspections carried by ushers at English National Opera, overseen by CEO Stuart Murphy, have been a particular gripe for patrons recently.
From time to time an usher makes themselves noticed. Milly Forrest is a masters student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 2017, she made headlines with a fairytale story, stepping in at the last minute for an indisposed singer at her place of work, the Wigmore Hall. This led to a booking for her first solo recital in the same venue, now rescheduled for spring 2021.
Forrest spoke to me about the responsibilities and pleasures of ushering. Like much of the audience for classical music, many of the regulars at Wigmore Hall are older patrons, some of whom would attend several times a week. “For some of them it might be the only bit of socializing they do during the week,” she told me.
Tact and gracefulness are critical. If a sleeping patron is snoring—who among us has not felt drowsy from time to time in a concert?—then the usher will approach delicately: “Excuse me sir, may I invite you to purchase a coffee from the bar?” Sometimes ushers face more challenging behavior from the public. In a 1995 documentary about the ROH, head usher Ivel Arnold decorously described patrons “using boxes for things that they are not intended for,” interrupting a couple who spent the first half in flagrante delicto. Eleanor Strutt recalled a bathroom with excrement smeared up the walls.
Forrest has got a lot out of ushering. Ushers who’ve done their time can train as page turners at Wigmore Hall, getting up-close-and-personal with artists onstage. Forrest told me she learned a lot about audio recording and microphone setups. And sitting at the back of the hall during a concert means you get a free program book—great, she said, for learning song texts and getting ideas for new repertoire. Particularly instructive too, she noted, was seeing performers make mistakes; an excellent corrective to the destructive perfectionism of the practice room.
Musicians in training often find work as ushers. Compared to other kinds of casual work, it is relatively well-paid, hovering around the London living wage, and yields up all kinds of intellectual and artistic benefits, opportunities like Milly Forrest’s notwithstanding.
Seeing great singers is one highlight. Eleanor Strutt ushered for the ROH’s 2020 production of “Fidelio,” which starred a volcanic Lise Davidsen. Strutt would forego her breaks so that she could stay in the auditorium and watch Davidsen sing. Alex Akhurst told me about finding himself in spots close to the stage where voices aren’t burnished or rounded out by the blended sound of the auditorium. “They sounded… like me,” he said, describing the confidence boost in hearing the unmixed, cruder sounds that singers make onstage, before finishing on a cushion of orchestral sound.
This is grounding for young singers, who uphold a punishing practice regime and can suffer from the tunnel vision of self-scrutiny. But ushering is also an opportunity to get a bigger sense of how opera works. Ushers are drawn from all walks of theatrical life, so it can be a great opportunity, Strutt said, to meet “videographers, designers, stagehands, directors, instrumentalists”—the whole gamut of operatic experience. You could, she joked, put together a whole show from the duty roster of ushers.
She’s not exaggerating: One of the first shows to return to the ROH main stage in autumn 2020, Hannah Kendall’s “The Knife of Dawn,” starred baritone Peter Brathwaite, a former ROH usher. Marcin Kokowski described a staff party on a barge in 2007, where a pianist, singer, and director drawn from the ranks staged a mini-opera, based on the various travails faced by ushers, as the evening’s entertainment.
While some ushers are transient, others spend decades in an opera house or concert hall. These legendary ushers often do it for sheer love, and display a fearsome knowledge of art form and repertory. “There are ushers who know the ballet dancers by name,” Strutt told me. Some have worked there so long they notice changes in the costume design over reprised productions, and can reel off histories of performers and shows.
In one play from 1613, Bruster and Weimann reported, a character turns to the audience: “Prologues are Huishers bare before the wise; / Why may then not an Huisher prologize?” Why not indeed? Ushers are a rich seam of unexpected wisdom. Ciarán O’Meara, a regular at the ROH, told me a story of a Royal Opera House bag check. “Are those pearls real, sir?” the usher remarked, on opening the bag. “Why?” “It’s very important to keep them against your skin, sir.”
Ushers know the secrets of the house. Kokowski told me that the ushers would navigate Covent Garden by means of secret passages, unknown to the public. In Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, the box attendant Mme. Giry is more in tune with the spooky goings-on than the careless management. She’s the one who pays off the ghost and prepares his box, which has so far averted the famous chandelier-shaped incident. Yet Mme. Giry is treated rather cruelly by the novel—self-important, unrefined, credulous—despite her real passion and knowledge. We meet her in chapter four:
Mme. Giry coughed, cleared her throat—it sounded as though she were preparing to sing the whole of Gounod’s score—and began:
“It was like this, sir. That night, M. Maniera and his lady, the jewelers in the Rue Mogador, were sitting in the front of the box, with their great friend, M. Isidore Saack, sitting behind Mme. Maniera. Mephistopheles was singing”—Mme. Giry here burst into song herself—“‘Catarina, while you play at sleeping,’ and then M. Maniera heard a voice in his right ear (his wife was on his left) saying, ‘Ha, ha! Julie’s not playing at sleeping!’”
She offers excerpts from “Faust” throughout this conversation. By contrast, the co-manager of the opera Moncharmin “did not know a note of music”; indeed, “we may well ask if he ever found time to attend to the affairs of the Opera otherwise than by telling what went on there” in his voluminous memoirs. The management let her go for all this quaint talk of ghosts—and more fool them for it.
In the usher we see the union of public and artist. They know the music and drama as well as anyone; they know what makes the audience tick. In Leroux’s novel the management eat humble pie. Mme. Giry is re-hired. Perhaps this is a lesson: Neglect the usher and their wisdom at your peril—they know how to look after the patrons, supernatural or otherwise. ¶