Why is popcorn mandatory at the movies but frowned upon at the opera?

As news spread of the great popcorn debacle of the BBC Proms, people took sides – and most of the comments came down against the American popcorn enthusiasts. A classical music critic, Jessica Duchen, implored the Royal Albert Hall to stop selling popcorn, tweeting that it was “noisy, smelly, intrusive and completely inappropriate at a concert, and it causes big fights in the audience, ruining the evening for all around”.

Opera goers agreed popcorn was beneath the artform. But the outcry reveals something more pernicious and snobby than mere irritation at the popcorn masticators. It strikes at the heart of what is considered high art or low art and who gets to participate.

Popcorn has historically been associated with entertainment for the masses. According to Smithsonian magazine, popcorn had become popular at American fairs and circuses by the middle of the 19th century, thanks to the spectacle of the popping. The mobile steam-powered popcorn maker was ubiquitous by the end of the century. But when the first movie theatres opened in the US, owners wouldn’t allow popcorn because they wanted to preserve the so-called decorum of the theatre.

That all changed with the confluence of two events: the invention of the talkies and the Great Depression. Early silent movies required literacy to read the title cards, so only when sound was introduced could the lower socioeconomic classes take in a great story for a few coins. With that expansion of the audience, cash-strapped theatre owners finally allowed popcorn – and the high profit margins staved off bankruptcy for many.

Now, when we think of a “popcorn flick”, it evokes a blockbuster rich in spectacle and scant on gravitas. But a Marvel movie can pack emotional heft. Black Panther meant more to marginalised audiences than any reductive label would suggest.


And no one reasonably throws a side-eye at someone munching away during a quieter drama such as Moonlight or a heavy historical epic such as 12 Years a Slave. Moviegoers understand there’s a social contract that the cinema is for everyone – just don’t be rude, and popcorn is not rude.

Popcorn connects us to the collective experience of spectatorship, of being inclusive of anyone who wants to share in a storytelling journey. And if popcorn is deemed not only acceptable but intrinsically linked to the movie-going experience, why is it not OK for operas, ballets and classical music concerts?

Why is it OK for attendees of what’s traditionally considered high art – with the inaccessible, exorbitant ticket prices to match – to demand venues such as the Royal Albert Hall stop selling popcorn at its shows? A commenter under Duchen’s post went so far as to suggest musicians threaten to strike until the popcorn madness is put to an end. You could almost hear the Greek chorus of “riff raff!”

If you really loved the artform, you’d want as many people as possible to share in that love, instead of putting up fences to keep people out, demanding they conform to some standard that says more about those making a fuss than those who have “transgressed”. At least no one is throwing peanuts from the rafters anymore.

And, it’s not as if they were pulverising some potato chips. Now, that’s a crime.

Wenlei Ma is a freelance film and TV critic, journalist and broadcaster.

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