Reader Question #15: Noisy Oxygen Tanks At The Opera

Dear Captain Awkward:

OK, here’s a bit of an awkward situation for you: Very elderly folks, at the symphony or the opera, with one of those oxygen tanks that gives a very audible puff of air every three seconds, and makes a noise like a clockwork sniff.

I’ve been at many performances when one of these was in the audience, and it is incredibly annoying and very hard to ignore. I was at a concert just a few days ago, not even sitting near the offender, and yet I could hear it loud and clear, especially during quiet moments in the music, and it really did keep me from enjoying an otherwise flawless and moving performance.

What’s more, all the people who were sitting near the elderly man (in this case) were making faces and shifting uncomfortably like someone had farted, for most of the first half. Only some of them moved for the second half, and Mr. Oxygen Tank continued right on sniffing for the entire show.

My instinct is to report distracting noises like this to the ushers and/or management, but at this concert, as with the other concerts, I was 1) comped, and 2) busy during the intermission with work-related socializing. I also assumed someone sitting near the guy, given how uncomfortable they looked and how egregious the noise was, would have said something.

But also, I felt a little bad for him. Unlike people who talk or unwrap candies during concerts, this is something that is presumably unavoidable and medically necessary, and also, for the theater, an accessibility issue.

It must suck to get old and not be able to do so many things that you once enjoyed, and I feel like a bit of an asshole for snarling at an old guy for carrying his life-giving oxygen with him. Does he even realize how annoying the sound is, or has it become invisible to him? Or does it ruin his enjoyment too?

The Oregon Arts Commission has a discussion of this, and they don’t really seem to have a solution, but think theaters should come up with one.

What are your thoughts?

Your question made me play these two YouTube videos at the same time to gain a greater understanding of the problem.

This is different from the usual concert annoyances that Captain Awkward faces:

1.  Stinky smokers smoking in close quarters and filling the world with their stench and stray cigarette burns. Thank you, Chicago Smoking Ban! Now this asthmatic girl can like concerts again!
2.  Fucking show choir glee club assholes who come to the concert to sing with their favorite performers, loudly and with feeling. So it’s like playing THESE two YouTube videos at the same time:

Regina Spektor can’t hear your pathetic devotion, but I can, and what I hear is SUCKYTOWN because you suck.  It’s one thing when the band at a loud show says “Everybody sing along now!”, but when it’s an intimate concert of one lady + her piano, shove a sock in it.  It’s called a karaoke bar.  Go to one.

As the audience for opera and classical music ages (as much a matter of disposable income as taste – I’d go to the symphony every week if I had the $$) this problem is only going to grow. I think it’s entirely possible, as you suggest, that the users of oxygen tanks get used to the sound over time.  I think it’s also possible that the noise annoys them just as much as it annoys you, and they are horribly self-conscious about it but don’t know what else to do.

After reading the Oregon Arts Council discussion you linked, and very conscious that I am neither a lawyer nor a disabled person and cannot speak very well to accessibility and discrimination issues, it makes sense to tread very lightly here.  I like the commenter in that thread who made this suggestion:

What we are thinking about doing is perhaps working with a respiratory therapist to create a brochure on options that patrons can discuss with their therapist/doctors IF the noise bothers THEM. Since we have many season ticket holders for the symphony, the opera and the ballet, we will simply consider moving the complaining patrons when possible.

So far we are not sure how to address the issue beyond these steps. I certainly do not want to prevent anyone from attending performances. However, those people who are sensitive to noise also have a point. White noise does make it just as difficult for those with hearing loss or tinnitus to enjoy the performance and many of these folks are also covered under ADA. Here at the Civic Center, we are trying to balance this and plan to continue the research.

Most of the theaters who participated in the discussion had the policy of moving the complaining patron rather than the person with the tank, which I think is a good one.  In a perfect world, theaters could do some outreach to patrons around the subject.  I especially like pitching that outreach to patrons in terms of “we realize that devices like this can interfere with your own ability to enjoy music – we’ve researched some possible solutions to raise with your doctor.”  If I had a noisy oxygen tank and were a regular patron of a venue, I’d like to think I’d bring it to the attention of the box office when buying my tickets and see if there were a place I could sit that would be away from other patrons (maybe on a night one of those nifty private boxes are going unused!), but I shouldn’t be required to so (or required to pay more), and would rightly take issue with even the politest “Wouldn’t you be more comfortable over here away from everyone?” reseating.

So next time, grit your teeth until intermission, resist the urge to shoot dirty looks at someone who cannot help making that sound, get yourself out of earshot of the person, and ask an usher to re-seat you if possible.  It’s an imperfect solution to an unfortunate problem.

Does anyone with more experience around this issue have anything to add?  I’m ready to be schooled by a pro.

5 thoughts on “Reader Question #15: Noisy Oxygen Tanks At The Opera

  1. The opera fall under old school Marshall Field’s territory – “Give the lady what she wants.” The best thing to do here is get out your imaginary kelly bag and pearls, along with best manners and presume all ushers want you to have the best time possible. They would be sad if you did not get to enjoy the opera properly. The is one place where all annoyances may be solved by gentle, firm, puffed-up pearl chested manners.

  2. I found this site because I was wondering if anyone else HAD run into this problem of the noisy “puff, puff, puff” of the oxygen machine at a concert. I am a violin player who has played TWO recent orchestral concerts lately during which someone with a puffing oxygen machine was sitting close enough to the stage that i could clearly here the puffs and found them VERY distracting. Indeed, both concerts happen to have involved piano concertos, and during very quiet, usually beautiful passages played by the piano soloist, there was the regular “puff… puff… puff” hammering on. I found that it really threw me off as a player; I was not in a “zone” and sometimes would lose count in rests because my mind kept getting drawn to that sound; I would not be surprised if it threw the SOLOIST off. Musicians are very much focused during a concert, and a distracting noise that continues throughout the whole concert is quite awful. I feel for the people who use oxygen machines, and of course I want them to be able to enjoy a concert. But if musicians on stage can hear…. that’s a problem… could they perhaps be required to sit further back, or at least not front and center?

    1. as someone who has worked in audience services a lot – this is not something that has any easy solution.

      a) (stereotype alert) – many individuals who require O2 tanks are often older, and have seeing/hearing problems as well. They are therefore more likely to request seats that are near the stage.

      b) most performing arts orgz are highly dependent on older, wealthier people who give donations & actually buy full price, premium tickets. This demographic is slightly more likely to need an O2 machine.
      b-2) this will not change until the arts orgz in question get (a lot) more funding from governmental organisations. I’ll meet you for a snowball fight in hell on that day.

      So yeah, if you can’t handle the odd O2 machine from time to time, your only potential recourse is going exclusively to student matinees. Where you will also be annoyed, but in a different way.

      If you are stuck really close to this person, discreetly (and politely) speak to the usher and/or the box-office. They *will* move you if they can. Odds are the seat won’t be as ‘good’. But it will be further away from the ‘puff puff’.

      1. Thanks for that reply! I completely understand your comments on the older demographic of orchestra audiences. As I mentioned I am actually a violin player and was hearing the O2 tank in the audience while I was playing in the orchestra on stage! That is what made it particularly distracting, and of course there is really no recourse at that point. I suppose there are not many options in any case, as you pointed out; it would probably often be hard to anticipate the situation since ticket buyers would not have to explain their O2 machine needs while buying a ticket, and would just show up with their machine…. I just found it surprising that that person would in a way WISH to sit so close, as it seemed that they must know that not only the audience but the players and perhaps the soloist would be able to hear it and might be disturbed by it. But perhaps the person using it really does not hear it anymore him/herself… I appreciate your comments on this odd and challenging situation. Thanks.

    2. Sorry, meant to be a general reply; ended up just being a reply to you. Sorry, and, short answer to your final question, probably not and I’m really sorry?

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