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May 22, 2012

UPDATE: Metropolitan Opera changes position; Opera News will cover Met

UPDATE 4 p.m. Tuesday: The Metropolitan Opera has backed down; Opera News will continue to cover Met performances after all. FULL PRESS RELEASE BELOW

First, the disclosure.

I have been a correspondent for Opera News for something like 25 years -- a length of time I would not ordinarily acknowledge, since it raises hideous suggestions about my age; but with Internet searches so easy, no point in hiding the fact.

Now for the reaction to the story that broke over night in the New York Times: Opera News, a longtime magazine published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, will "stop reviewing the Metropolitan Opera, a policy prompted by the Met’s dissatisfaction over negative critiques.”

This follows close on the heels of another worrisome incident -- WQXR removed a post from its blog that was critical of the Met, a move prompted by the institution in question. (There was also the case last year of the popular, non-critical blog that offered very smart guesses about future Met seasons -- that one was shut down, too, at the Met's request.)

The cyber-sphere has been abuzz all night -- the readers of the fabulous La Cieca apparently don't sleep at all -- about this latest manifestation of what appears to be a severe case of thin skin disease on the part of Met general manager Peter Gelb. I might as well get in on the discussion, too.

When confronted with fresh evidence of this nature, the first thing I think of is ...

the Somerset Maugham quote: "People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise."

This unfortunate human trait is bad enough when it involves nothing more than your spouse or spousal equivalent asking you what you think of his/her outfit. When it comes to performers and heads of arts organizations, it's just a whole lot more serious.

The relationship of Opera News to the Met complicates matters, of course. The magazine is closely linked to the opera house, since the Guild was established as a fundraising arm of the company, so the idea of reviewing is obviously risky.

But the reviewing has been going on for decades. Funny that management was apparently cool with the reviews until negative assessments started cropping up lately.

I am forever amused by readers of mine who think I am so astute when I write a glowing opinion, but who change on a dime the minute I find fault with something. Then I'm accused of being unreasonable, cruel, stupid, destructive, etc.

Couldn't we all agree that we all of us not perpetually perfect -- critics included? (I say this as one of maybe two or three critics in the world who found much to like in the Met's otherwise roundly booed production of "Tosca" Mr. Geld chose to present a few years back.)

If, as it appears, Mr. Gelb has difficulty with encountering any discouraging words in the press, what is it like during a staff meeting at the Met? How easy is it for anyone inside the institution to question a decision or make an alternative suggestion?

I found myself thinking this morning about the case several years ago of the Cleveland Plain Dealer music critic taken off the Cleveland Orchestra beat after one too many unfavorable opinions of the music director. The newspaper might not have been an actual arm of the orchestra, but, with a publisher being on the orchestra board, it sure was easy to start lobbying for a change in critics.

All sorts of spin was attached to this situation by all sides involved, but the bottom line still boiled down to this: The Cleveland Orchestra asked for criticism, but only wanted praise. As for the newspaper, it decided it was in its best interests to placate an advertiser (and, at board room level, a pal).

The profession of music criticism took a hit in Cleveland, not just the individual critic. That's what bothered a lot of us. Looks to me like the same sort of thing is happening at the Met.

Silencing Opera News may not seem like a big deal to folks. Some people will focus on that Guild relationship and talk a lot about the how this just boils down to a bite-the-hand-that-feeds-it situation. I wonder.

Any squelching of opinion is cause for alarm and reflection. What about other critics who cover the Met? Will they find their access restricted based on their reviews? (Anecdotal evidence indicates that this has already happened in a few cases.)

And doesn't it ever occur to folks on the receiving end of criticism that reviews -- credible ones, at least -- are aimed not at trying to destroy but to improve?

Critics may write some pretty nasty things, but rarely out of pure spite and malice. 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.

And, at the risk of repeating myself, I have to point out again how ridiculous it is that the same critic who loves a performance is considered to be wise and wonderful up until that same critic is not as impressed with another performance. It is as absurd to dismiss and try to ignore all negative reviews as it would be to accept only the positive ones. 

Messy scandals involving the arts v. the press rarely help anyone in the long run. There must be ways to keep the lid on, to find a compromise -- perhaps the inclusion of extra voices, the same way an op-ed page makes room for opposing political sides.

Then again, maybe that's going a step too far. Maybe people in the public eye just need to learn to get over their sensitivity, to have enough faith in themselves and their work to let the bad reviews roll off them.

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.

P.S. Here's the Met's release:

In view of the outpouring of reaction from opera fans about the recent decision to discontinue Met performance reviews in Opera News, the Met has decided to reverse this new editorial policy. From their postings on the internet, it is abundantly clear that opera fans would miss reading reviews about the Met in Opera News. Ultimately, the Met is here to serve the opera-loving public and has changed its decision because of the passionate response of the fans.

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. These discussions have included the role of reviews in Opera News, and whether they served that mission. While the Met believed it did not make sense for a house organ that is published by the Guild and financed by the Met to continue to review Met productions, it has become clear that the reviews generate tremendous excitement and interest and will continue to have a place in Opera News.


FILE PHOTO (Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera)

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:00 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera


Loved the comment buried somewhere in the Parterre thread about this that Gelb is doing his best Bing interpretation. Paraphrased, of course.

But yes--this is definitely bad news. The Met has tried a number of new things over the past few years, and some have been wildly successful like Shostakovich (LOVED IT) and some of the reviews about the recent Janacek--which I have not seen.

And of course silencing the critical eye toward the Met from ON is not an effective way to improve PR, or productions for that matter.

How satisfying to see the roar of an angry, opera-loving public overturn this censorship. As a longtime Met attendee, this heavy-handed attempt at silencing criticism was just bad, bad news all the way.

Excepting Mr. Smith's reliably well-informed pieces, a considerable percentage of the reviews appearing in OPERA NEWS during the past few MET seasons have been insipid, poorly-written rubbish that offered painfully little genuine insight. Noting how lovely this or that singer looked in his or her costumes is of little importance, and comments in OPERA NEWS about musical values at the MET have caused this long-time reader to wonder whether several regular contributors to the 'In Review' section are clinically deaf. To discontinue reviews of MET performances altogether sends entirely the wrong message (which, for me, is that the Company itself is no longer concerned about collaborative efforts at improvement) and panders to the current Management's collective ego, ignoring the prestigious history of the Company.

The PR release itself is loaded with misdirection. The Met is not the only big opera company to be putting on controversial productions. Is it the only one silencing critics?

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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