How Critics Can Help Us Love Opera Even More

Wednesday, September 21, 2016 - 01:09 PM

Harold Harvey's painting 'The Critics' from 1922. (Photo by Irina/Flickr)

Once upon a time there were arts reviewers, especially of theater, who were more famous for their poison pens than their ideas. Critics including George Bernard Shaw (who also was a formidable opera critic), Kenneth Tynan, Dorothy Parker and John Mason Brown, were adept at turning a humorous phrase but only intermittently communicated what they actually witnessed on the stage. Wit was more prized than accurate reporting. Of Tallulah Bankhead in Antony and Cleopatra, Brown wrote that she “barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra — and sank.”

Composers who wrote criticism were often savaged when their own music was reviewed. Early in his career, Hector Berlioz wrote negative reviews of composers of lesser talent. Some in the French musical establishment later marginalized him and dismissed masterpieces such as the Symphonie fantastique or the incomparable opera Les Troyens.

Virgil Thomson was a composer of operas such as Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All, both with librettos by Gertrude Stein. But he has been described by many as being a better critic than a composer, including in a recently published collection of his writings called The State of Music.

In 1957, Thomson wrote, “Any reviewer who finds quickly the compact phrase has clearly a talent for letters. If he has also a talent for judgment and no fear of using it, then he is a good reviewer. A good reviewer does not have to be right; he has only to have a good mind and to speak it.”

Things have changed a lot when it comes to the role of criticism, in most ways for the better. The droll turn of phrase is harder to come by. In its place we have (in New York, at least) fine writers covering opera and classical music in ways that make the reader understand why a performance, a piece of music or a musician is worth knowing about. With the openings of the New York Philharmonic (Sept. 21), Metropolitan Opera (Sept. 26) and Carnegie Hall (Oct. 6) at hand, I hope music lovers will read some of the best criticism our media have to offer.

First, though, some definition of terms. When we say “critic” regarding arts writing, we usually think it means someone who will write an assessment of a live performance, film, art exhibition or book. Because we perceive the word “critic” as related to “critical” or “criticism,” the inference is that he or she will likely write something negative. But “critic” has a broader meaning that is seldom remembered: expertise.

I seldom write reviews because I don’t like thinking in a judgmental way when I attend performances. Also, I personally know some of the people about whom I write. I avoid the word “critic” and prefer being called a “writer on the arts.” In Europe I am frequently described as a critic because there it implies someone who has devoted himself to mastering his knowledge of an art form and then using writing and speaking to share what he knows.

Let us think of all of those writers who expertly devote themselves to learning and explaining an art form as critics, whether we agree with them or not. Those who primarily write reviews tell us what happened at a particular performance, describe singing, orchestral playing, conducting and, for a new opera production, scenery, costumes, lighting, choreography and the ideas and concept of the stage director. For a one-time performance, such as a concert, the reviewer documents for history what, in his or her opinion, took place. If it is something that will have more performances, the subtext is whether the reader should buy tickets. Nowadays, fewer people buy tickets ahead of time so a review has more weight in this decision.

A reviewer (such as Anthony Tommasini or his colleagues at The New York Times, including Zachary Woolfe, James Oestreich, Vivien Schweitzer, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim and David Allen) is also likely to write an occasional opinion article about something they consider important. Then there are news items or interviews the critic might write but, in that case, someone else should be assigned to write a review of the performance or musician in question. 

Although Times arts writers cover many performances, some are still missed. The Times also has reporters — especially the excellent Michael Cooper — who do well-researched articles about finances at arts institutions or interesting features that don’t involve an opinion.

The Times has the deepest bench of critics and writers who cover all of the arts, but other publications in town are worth reading, too. When it comes to opera and classical music, there is serious coverage in The New Yorker (by Alex Ross), the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Martin Bernheimer in the FT, The New York Review of Books, The Observer and The Gay City News. Opera News, devoted entirely to opera, is published each month.

Here at WQXR, David Patrick Stearns writes reviews while I do arts reporting and opinion articles. There are several other contributors, including on-air hosts, to our coverage of opera, classical music and the arts at WQXR and we are proud to be not only a media organization but an arts institution.

I describe the critical landscape in New York to contrast it with the rest of the country, where things are not so rosy. Few major national magazines, radio stations or television networks have any serious coverage of the arts. Certain publications will nod toward the classical arts if a singer is especially beautiful or has lost a lot of weight, but not for their artistic accomplishments. Major urban newspapers, especially The Washington Post but also the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and a few others, have a reviewer who covers as much as is possible. But most Americans are exposed to very little arts (as opposed to popular entertainment) coverage.

When the forum of public ideas — whether in media, education or politics — largely ignores the arts and how they influence and inspire us, we are all poorer because of that, as are the people making the art. I encourage you to read and think about the ideas of those critics who deepen your love and understanding of opera, music or whatever art form you cherish.


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Comments [5]

Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va

While critics can help or hurt box office sales none can capture the experience of attending a live performance, especially at The Met. Even after over forty years of attendance I never fail to get a chill as the lights dim and the audience quiets down and the curtain parts.
Critics are like Monday morning quarterbacks, picking apart what has happened, but few if any can improve the art form or performance.
I may be old fashioned but I believe that anyone attending an opera performance be it at The Met, La Scala or even at small regional companies should study the score, and story line and if it is an opera they have never heard, should spend time listening or watching past performances.
No critic can turn a bad performance into a memorable experience, but some can be so self important they can and do scare new audiences from experiencing their first opera, and this certainly helps no one.

Sep. 28 2016 08:44 PM
baritono from Lodz/Bangalore/Vienna

Opera is just a bunch of big voices prancing around in costumes with a grand orchestra making big noises in black suits, with a crazy guy waving a stick around, and all of this happening in big beautiful buildings where fancily dressed people have paid big bucks to pretend they're there for the art, but rather have come to mingle with others of their financial standing. (I'm going to paint this one day, I swear!)

People don't appreciate Opera, because they don't understand it right. I think, the most important ally Opera has, is Education. People (outside of the group mentioned above) who have artistic education/training/prior contact with Opera, are more likely to contribute to the success of Opera in anyway even if miniscule, than those without.

Those without, and Opera, could mutually benefit with a little bit of reading from time to time. We should find a way to feed this reading (or others forms of awareness activites) into their daily dose of other reading/awareness activities (much like adding vitamin supplements). I'm with you, Christopher Hosford.

Critics are read by those who are into Opera already, for the most part, because I feel that if someone is not looking for it, he/she won't come across it. Out of sight, out of mind.

Sep. 27 2016 04:19 AM
Michelle O. Fried from Quito, Ecuador

Thank you for helping me be more aware of what I am hearing, seeing, experiencing. Each of us has the capacity to development more and more our expertise, however, it´s reassuring to have good writers guide us. Through the arts we expand. Thank you.

Sep. 23 2016 02:40 PM
Christopher Hosford from Bronx, NY

Hi Fred: Interesting column, and I enjoy all of your posts as jumping off points for further discussion. Here’s mine: Music and art critics today have none, zero, nada influence on taste or popularity. These otherwise likeable guys and gals appeal to their constituents, period. They natter, they nitpick, they laud, they condemn. Some achieve poetic atmospherics of real perception (Alistair Macaulay anyone?), but even then appeal only to cognoscenti, or otherwise crazy lovers of words and thoughts. To your point, what counts is the use of art in the popular media. I’m thinking of early Grace Moore and Jeanette MacDonald films; of “Going My Way” with Rise Stevens; of a movie like “Moonstruck” with Cher; of Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez in “Diva”; of Julia Migenes in several releases; and (to date myself) the many movies by Mario Lanza. Even “The Godfather Part III” had its “Cavalleria Rusticana” moment. And pop specialists like Paul Potts or Sarah Brightman, or that poor blind whatitsname on public TV, offer to many an “aha” moment about art music and opera. As popular culture acknowledges art—as it did primarily in the years prior to, say,1960—art will flourish. Until pop culture does so again, art will languish as a hothouse flower, beloved by two or three and then die. Call it a tail-wags-dog situation, but the fact is no “critic” will bring opera or any art back to life until the masses embrace it via popular culture, until they respect it as a legitimate expression of music and performance.

Sep. 22 2016 01:39 PM
OperaGene from Vienna, VA

I am so glad you wrote this article. I am in complete agreement. We in the DC area are blessed that the Washington Post manages to employ Anne Midgette and Philip Kennicott, both outstanding critics and writers. Not too long ago I wrote a blog post in their and other critics support called "New Feature: Show the Critics Some Love":

Sep. 21 2016 04:51 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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