Critical Thinking: Whose Opinions Really Matter?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 - 12:47 PM

Ever since there was opera there were critics to criticize it. “Opera seems always to have needed interpreters," wrote Yale University music professor Ellen Rosand in the journal 19th-Century Music in 1990. "Its failure to conform to the standard laws of genre or kind rendered opera suspect; it was continually called upon to define and redefine, to explain and justify itself.”

Fast-forward four centuries, and whether or not opera still “needs” interpreters, besides those on the stage and in the pit, is debatable. Nevertheless, traditional print critics have been joined by bloggers, commenters, Facebookers, Tweeters and message board junkies. And that has Michael Kaiser, the president of the John F. Kennedy Center and author of The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations, upset.

In (ironically) a blog post published on Monday for the Huffington Post, Kaiser bemoaned the fact that “arts criticism has become a participatory activity rather than a spectator sport” and that “blogs, chat rooms and message boards devoted to the arts” are part of the problem.

Kaiser also finds it hard to distinguish professional reviews from amateur reviews (no clear example is given for where such confusion may be most apparent). And while Kaiser acknowledges that the fate of the arts should not rest in the hands of any one critic, he believes “great art must not be measured by a popularity contest. Otherwise the art that appeals to the lowest common denominator will always be deemed the best.”

The Monday missive has since attracted a flurry of responses, appropriately enough in the comments section of his Huffington Post blog. “Since this article is posted online on a blog, I am having a hard time telling whether the writer is an expert," wrote one reader. "I want to be sure he has been vetted by his employer before taking what he has written seriously." Others chimed in on the niche Twittersphere of the arts, and on other blogs.

Arts organizations, including many mentored by Kaiser and his Kennedy Center Arts Management Institute, have spent the last few years navigating the digital world in hopes of courting younger generations. The connectedness of the Internet means a New Yorker living in London can keep up with the intimate goings-on of San Francisco Opera, or a Dallasite who has never been out of the country can watch the inaugural performance of Moscow’s restored Bolshoi Theatre thanks to YouTube.

But art isn’t made in vacuums, and organizations have begun to realize that in order to capture the holy-grail youth markets, they must encourage communication and dialogue as they open up what were normally Indiana-Jones–style mausoleums for public exploration. For those born into the new millennium and the preceding couple of decades, there is no experience worth having if it cannot be discussed afterward.

An example of the popular audience review videos made by performing arts organizations—with a glam Met twist.

In this, Kaiser contradicts himself: He writes “it is wonderful that people now have an opportunity to express their feelings about a work of art,” but he then says that this same opportunity is what will lead to the death of criticism.

What Makes an "Expert?"

“Most serious arts critics know a great deal about the field they cover and can evaluate a given work or production based on many years of serious study and experience. These critics have been vetted by their employers,” writes Kaiser. “Anyone can write a blog or leave a review in a chat room. The fact that someone writes about theater or ballet or music does not mean they have expert judgment.”

Unlike medicine or engineering, there are very few hard-and-fast facts that signify an expert: Chief New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini has a masters in music from Yale and a doctorate in the same from Boston University, yet Pulitzer finalist and New Yorker critic Alex Ross studied English. Yet even with their accolades and laurels, does it really matter ultimately what Ross or Tommasini think if the person reading the review has an entirely different experience with the same concert?

What Ross or Tommasini may do in such a case is make a compelling argument for their opinion, offer another way of approaching the art at hand and perhaps incite some conversation (online or otherwise). Even a bad review can be less of a dismissive sign to avoid at all costs, and more a juxtaposing view put out there to be contested and discussed. It’s why enterprising publicists insist there’s no such thing as bad press.

The multisensory experience of opera is what makes it one of the hottest art forms when it comes to criticism. There’s not only the musical experience coming from singers, conductors, orchestras and composers, but visuals in acting, costumes, staging and sets. A drab Tosca at the Met can be an atrocity with a miscast trio of leads, or it can be salvaged by a triumvirate of sublime singers. Which performers fit those roles will inevitably vary from critic to critic and listener to listener, and it explains why Amazon carries 953 recordings relating to Puccini’s same opera (the premiere of which opened to tepid reviews but was a box office success in subsequent performances). 

As a music journalist, and one who often reviews performances (reviews often posted on this blog), I’ll be the first to tell detractors that my opinion may mean the most to publicists and marketers, but ultimately it’s just one opinion. I actually love arguing over certain performances, recordings, productions as the more worldviews brought into the conversation inevitably add to my own greater appreciation for the art form. It’s fun to gush, but it’s even more fun to debate the merits and shortcomings of a Tosca without the candlesticks, a sadomasochistic Abduction from the Seraglio or a Eugene Onegin set in the USSR. And while I have nothing but respect for my fellow critics, some of my favorite conversations are with my mother and grandfather-in-law, both physicians by trade and both full of illuminating opinions whenever they leave an opera house.

What’s scary in Kaiser’s article isn’t the trend of audiences sharing their opinions of works. What’s scary is the line of thinking that a person can spend $25 or $375 on an opera ticket but would be discouraged from saying what they thought. And if organizations follow Kaiser’s line of thinking and close their ears to this feedback, they’re closing their ears to the future of the arts.

Are bloggers' and web commenters' opinions as valid as critics'? Or should opinions be left to the critics? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


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Comments [9]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

This is a democracy, everyone's opinion has SOME validity if it is expressed honestly. Tschaikovsky, if anyone could write melodies, HE CERTAINLY DID, but when he came to Bayreuth, Germany to view Wagner's RING which was the rage of Europe then, he denounced the epic work as UNMELODIC. So, even geniuses can be wrong in some of their judgments. I studied music criticism with Max Graf, the father of the famed MET OPERA stage director, Herbert Graf. Max Graf's music criticism was in Vienna, Austria and he was cognizant of the trends in another age, SO different from today as not to be on the same planet. My own contention is that to be an informed and informative music critic one must have professional experience in what one is reviewing. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] and the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where there is voice training and coaching in all the roles of the Shakespeare plays and the operatic roles of Wagner's oeuvre. My Juilliard background and stage experience have motivated my activities as a performer, composer and teacher. The late Bill Zakariasen, music critic for the New York Daily News gave up his singing career to turn to music criticism. I postulate that one having many interests and means of income producing should consider the contemporary scenario and see where the most good utilization of one's time resides. Timing is as much a factor in selecting a career in music criticism as music itself.

May. 13 2012 12:29 PM
richard from Englewood, NJ

I can't define a musical expert, but I know one when I see one. Harold C. Schonberg was the last one I truly respected. His reviews were insightful and clear: if he liked or didn't like a performance he explained why. One could accept his take on an opera or not. For example, he loved Sutherland and Corelli for their big clear voices despite their shortcomings. At the time I could not agree with him. As time passed, I realized he was right and I was wrong. He loved McCracken's Otello - I didn't and still don't. But I understood his explanations and always respected them for their sincerity.
Ultimately, likes are very personal. But a good critic can enhance (or validate) one's appreciation. This expertise is sorely lacking today.

Nov. 22 2011 09:01 AM
MIchael Meltzer

Never forget the review by composer Virgil Thomson, chief music critic of the NY Herald Tribune, of the American debut of pianist Vladimir Horowitz:
"Master of distortion !"
We're getting too abstract and remote. The opening issue was Mr. Kaiser's and his peers' control over how and whether audiences spend their money at the box-office.
Rather than give a critic that control, I would rather follow my "uneducated" instincts take a few chances, thank you.

Nov. 17 2011 03:23 PM
R. from Springfield

"Whose Opinions Really Matter?"

Do we get different answers depending on whether or not the question is asked by a writer at a flagship classical music station situated in the capital of the world?

Nov. 17 2011 02:22 PM
Carolyn from New York City

Critics as well as bloggers are just fine, one paid and the other from some type of "expertise" (performer or avid fan) giving their opinions however they form them.... The most important opinion, I think, however, is the beholder, him/herself. What touches the heart cannot be criticized. Esoteric knowledge has its points, passion certainly has its points, and in reading critics and bloggers, both points are featured in the review. Ain't it great!!!

Nov. 17 2011 09:38 AM
Bernie from UWS

I don't think the debate is as simplistic as "blogger vs. old-guard newspaper critic." On one hand, the newspaper music critic will always have a greater authority by virtue of the fact that he/she reaches a much broader public through their work. They come with the stamp of a mass-market publication that still reaches large numbers of readers that come not just for arts criticism but a wide range of news. If a sports fan is flipping through the paper and sees a music review, you've captured a potential newcomer.

Conversely, many bloggers cater to a very narrow segment of super-fans and experts. Some have real credentials and backgrounds in the fields they cover; others are just amateur fans. Nothing wrong with being an amateur fan, but frankly, I don't think their opinions are as valuable in helping me decide whether or not to buy a ticket to a show. Tommasini and Ross have been in the business for 20+ years and regardless of their educational training, they've earned their places as opinion-shapers. That said, Ross does blog too, so it's hard to say that all bloggers are rank dilettantes too.

I think Ms. Giovetti is being a little too harsh in her assessment of Kaiser, who is really bemoaning the disappearance of arts criticism in mass-market publications that the entire arts world still depends on.

Nov. 17 2011 06:30 AM
Michael Meltzer

If a corporation is threatened by competitors, we do not approve of a remedy by means of hostile takeover, we expect them to either improve their product or their prices and be competitive.
If Mr. Kaiser feels his job is threatened by bloggers, let him write better columns, or a book that makes him famous, and be competitive. He has to make readers want to come to him first, that is the American marketplace. It sounds like Mr. Kaiser's assumption is that the public is not intelligent enough to lead itself, discern solid information from questionable, or evaluate an opinion without his help. Let's be thankful he did not choose government as a profession.
I am very happy as a blogger not to be as important as a critic, since critics unfortunately can close a production or derail a career. If I thought anything I said would have that weight, I would usually be silent.
At the same time, we as bloggers often offer information as well as high or low opinions, even insights that can be unique and interesting. A student of American colonial history who knows nothing about opera can attend a production of "The Crucible" and have a lot of useful things to say that the producers might want to hear.
There is a danger that a well-organized minority group of bloggers can take on the appearance of a majority. Just write an opera about an abortion clinic and watch what comes your way.

Nov. 17 2011 01:36 AM
Judith Sebestyen from Brookline, MA

Your last paragraph says it all. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so the opinions of viewers should be important to the producers of any given production.

Nov. 17 2011 12:17 AM
Wendy Richman

I wish I were sputtering less so I could come up with something resembling an intelligent comment, but you said it all, anyway. Thanks, O.

Nov. 16 2011 11:18 PM

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