An Online Debate Of Operatic Intensity: The Met And Its Critics
Yesterday, the opera world was jolted by a rapid-fire sequence of stunning turns at the Metropolitan Opera — and not by divas onstage. In the morning, the New York Times carried a front-page story by Daniel J. Wakin in which he reported that Opera News, the magazine published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, would no longer review any productions at the Met, "a policy prompted by the Met's dissatisfaction over negative critiques." (A very harsh review of the company's new Götterdämmerung had appeared in the April Opera News, followed the next month by a damning Brian Kellow column about the tenure of Met general manager Peter Gelb.)
By 4 p.m. ET, however, the Met, not the Guild or its magazine, had issued a press statement reversing course. By close of business, Gelb had given a second interview to the Times: "I think I made a mistake," Gelb told Wakin.
The Opera News tussles came not long after two other incidents involving the Met and the media. In August, the Met asked fan Bradley Wilber, the amateur blogger behind the site "Met Futures" — which listed with impressive accuracy the Met's repertoire, casts and conductors several years ahead of their public announcements — to stop publishing, and Wilber did so immediately. Earlier this month, NPR member station WQXR, which receives some sponsorship from the Met and broadcasts the live Met performances on Saturday afternoons, deleted a blog post by Olivia Giovetti that criticized the Met's ambitious and very expensive new production of Wagner's Ring cycle, after Gelb personally complained to WQXR's parent organization, New York Public Radio. (Laura Walker, New York Public Radio's president and CEO, told the Times that the post "wasn't up to [WQXR's] high standards" and that it was already under review by the time she heard from Gelb.)
What seems to have precipitated this reversal in less than a day was an immediate and loud outcry from fans and critics. The Times was deluged by reader comments, along with hundreds more posted on the often biting opera blog Parterre, which also posted an essay comparing Gelb to Vladimir Putin, written by an anonymous contributor who chose the nom de plume "Lenny Abramov" for the occasion.
Across the country and around the world, noted critics also leapt to comment under their own names — and many of them didn't mince words. Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, wrote in a post that Gelb has "castrated the magazine ... he has guaranteed that nothing published in Opera News about the Met, be it positive or negative, will henceforth be taken at face value, and that no reputable music journalist will ever again agree to appear in its pages."
In her Washington Post blog, Anne Midgette wrote: "The takeaway now seems to me to be that Gelb is losing his mind," adding, "it seems surprising that an experienced marketer like Gelb, however sensitive he may be to writing he finds off-message, would opt to attack a field that's already beleaguered, that of arts journalism, and actively work to hobble one of the few organs in the world devoted to writing seriously about his company's own art form." Alex Ross of The New Yorker followed along a similar path: "Even those who have defended Gelb's artistic choices at the Met — I am not one of them — must have wondered at the bizarre sequence of events that unfolded yesterday: It appeared that America's leading opera company was cracking up in public."
Over at New York, Justin Davidson wrote, "Instead of batting away a bad review or hostile comment as one person's opinion, he has taken to bullying the very people who care most about the art form he is ostensibly there to advance," and prognosticated: "This bodes very ill for the Met, if only because an executive so intolerant of criticism is unlikely to allow internal dissent ... Gelb's not just killing stories — he's setting fire to the Met." Writing from London, author Norman Lebecht went so far as to suggest an international boycott of the Met by critics until the house reversed this decision.
Those sentiments weren't universally held, however. A number of opera fans posting commentary online yesterday argued that Gelb's logic was correct; given the even indirect ties between the Met, the Guild and Opera News, the Met's GM had every reason to tell the magazine not to bite the hand that feeds it. In the Met's afternoon press release, the company seemed to underscore that position by rather derisively referring to Opera News as its own "house organ." (The statement also included a comment about the Metropolitan Opera Guild that warrants its own unpacking at some point: "The Met and the Met Opera Guild, the publisher of Opera News, have been in discussions about the role of the Guild and how its programs and activities can best fulfill its mission of supporting the Metropolitan Opera.")
Despite their complicated ties, however, the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Opera Guild are legally two separate and distinct entities — and in large part, Opera News contributors are freelancers who are in no way employed or contractually tied to either the opera house or the Guild. Moreover, Opera News has evolved over decades into the world's premier English-language opera publication, covering the national and international scene quite credibly with many respected critics on its roster. It's not a glorified Met brochure. As Anne Midgette (who started out in her own career in the States as an Opera News reviewer) put it succinctly in her blog post: "Opera News is a publication of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, which is a support organization for the Met — that is, the Guild exists to support the Met, not the other way round. The Met is not paying for Opera News."
Aside from the drama of the Gelb/Met situation in particular and the personalities in question, this firestorm elicits some interesting broader questions — threads that several writers took up yesterday. The Baltimore Sun's Tim Smith, who has written for Opera News for about a quarter century, wrote of himself and his fellow critics: "We get concerned (or annoyed or offended) when standards slip, when the art is obscured by gimmickry, when performances are more about surface than substance. Strange how we want our musicians to be passionate, but our critics to be docile. ... The process of creating art and putting it before the public and, yes, the critics is essential if art is to develop. All that you gain by squelching dissent is to buy a little time, usually at the expense of integrity and respect."
Meanwhile, Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post culture critic and columnist for Gramophone magazine (where I was for several years the North America editor) wrote on his own blog something of a clarion call for critics: "It's easy for critics, like me, to become tribal and protective about criticism, without explaining why it matters. One reason it matters is that, when done well, it provides a template for how to listen and remember. The latter, remembering, is key. Criticism isn't just part of the public memory of a musical performance, it is a demonstration of how to process and analyze a complicated aesthetic experience, what to take note of, and how to organize those memories into something that may stay with you long after the performance."
Should arts criticism per se — not arts journalism and reportage, but reviews of either live performances or recordings — be part of any publication that is part of a larger institution, and especially one that is not a news organization operating by journalistic standards? And what happens when that larger institution is a presenter, which has an understandable vested interest in positive coverage?
And what, exactly, should good arts criticism accomplish? Should it be strictly a thumbs up, thumbs down consumer guide? Should it be a form of advocacy for the art form itself? (That's not an unpopular view, especially within such narrowcast fields as classical music and opera.) And if or when it is advocacy for the art — which sometimes can mean disliking a particular artist's performance or vision — is saying something not nice better than not saying anything at all? Please share your views.