As a relatively recent arrival to the Twin Cities, I’m often asked which aspects of life in Minnesota require the biggest adjustment.

The weather, obviously, is one of them — frigid and sweltering in ways I find impossible to explain to the folks back in Ireland.

The other big thing? As a veteran arts writer, I’m perplexed by the standing ovation. More specifically, I’ve struggled to comprehend why they’re so popular with Minnesota arts patrons. Why isn’t clapping an adequate gesture of approval and appreciation? Shouldn’t the standing ovation be reserved for truly special performances?

In England, where I lived for three decades, the standing ovation is a rarity, reserved for only the most exceptional cases. Audiences there usually remain seated. I’ve found they stand for less than 10 percent of all concerts and theater productions. It’s not for lack of enthusiasm, mind you. It just takes a lot to shift the typical English audience member from a comfortable sedentary position.

Here in Minnesota, I quickly discovered, audiences rise more easily — even eagerly. Roughly three-quarters of the performances I’ve attended during the past two years received a standing ovation.

Why the big discrepancy? Are Minnesota audiences too generous? Are English audiences too stingy? Are standards of performance here significantly better, necessitating the constant standing ovation? And if standing is the new sitting, how might a Minnesota audience member reward an extraordinary performance?

Cultural differences

For a stubborn sitter like myself, these are vexing questions. For answers, I turned to a few seasoned observers of the Twin Cities arts scene, people who have studied local audiences far longer than I have.

Kyu-Young Kim, artistic director and principal violin at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, acknowledged that audiences “tend to stand more often” in Minnesota than in Europe or New York, where he has performed frequently. Yet he rejects the theory that Minnesotans give enthusiastic applause to practically anything, regardless of quality, simply because they are a pleasant, well-disposed people. “Our audience is sophisticated,” he said. “It would be unfair to say they don’t know any better.”

SPCO marketing director Lindsey Hansen agreed. “What we hear from artists who come from all around the world is that our audience is one of the most knowledgeable.”

Peter Rothstein, artistic director of Theater Latté Da and a 20-year veteran of the Twin Cities arts scene, tells a similar story. “Probably three-fourths of the playwrights we work with are based in New York. What we hear again and again is how incredibly smart Minnesota audiences are, with thoughtful feedback.”

Smart, sophisticated and thoughtful — yet inclined to award standing ovations “more often than not,” in Rothstein’s estimation. Why wouldn’t these enlightened Twin Cities audiences reserve the ultimate accolade for moments that are truly special?

Because, he argued, the meaning of the standing ovation has evolved, at least here in Minnesota. It’s no longer the narrowly Eurocentric definition I brought with me when I moved to the U.S. The standing ovation is “not necessarily an immediate judgment about what people thought of one particular performance on one particular evening,” Rothstein said. “It’s more an affirmation of a bigger investment in the work of a given company or set of performers.”

Communal celebration

What compelled Minnesotans to redefine the standing ovation? My insiders believe it comes down to arts funding on the two continents.

In the United States, private donations are crucial to the financial health of most cultural organizations. And much of the money comes from those audience members clapping (and standing) so vigorously.

In Europe, most of the funding comes from remote central government agencies. The process is invisible to the average European arts patron.

It’s little surprise, then, that U.S. audiences feel more invested in the fortunes of their favorite arts groups. Here in Minnesota, where the rate of charitable giving is among the highest in the nation, audiences are even more invested. No wonder they’re so demonstrative with their support and approval.

In this context, the standing ovation becomes a broader vote of confidence in the arts organization itself. Think of it as a communal celebration of shared achievements, a booster’s rallying call for the future.

All of which leaves me, the European outsider, even more at sea than when I started. Do I embrace the “standing O” and start hopping to my feet for (almost) everything? Or do I stay rigidly seated, the very image of a party-pooping curmudgeon?

The SPCO’s Hansen has a number of suggestions. Minnesota audiences, she said, have many creative ways of acknowledging outstanding performances.

“People whistle and they yell and they cheer,” she said. “Sometimes there’s a lot of hooting and hollering. You can tell how the audience really feels. Standing isn’t the only barometer.”

I’m comforted that Minnesotans have found innovative ways to reward exceptional art. And yet this emotionally reticent newcomer finds Hansen’s words a touch alarming.

Whistling? Yelling? Hooting? Hollering?

I’m afraid the road to cultural assimilation just got a little steeper for this Minnesota transplant.

 

Terry Blain writes about theater and classical music.