Oh the uproar

I don’t mind when readers and opera goers review my reviews. Fair game. And I welcome the interaction. But I don’t understand the upset that I hear is brewing on Facebook and through emails to my editor around my review of Anna Bolena at the COC. It’s a fairly sedate review, but even that amount of disagreement comes across as RADICAL in a reviewing environment that has become extremely timid and let’s-all-get-along. Perhaps people should read some British, French or American negative reviews for comparison?

I don’t give negative reviews in a cavalier and off-hand manner. If something’s not working for me, I try to explain why. Large budget and established, stable organizations and in-demand, established singers and the fans of each should be able take a negative review without a hissy fit. Or not? Is it allowed not to like a certain opera? A certain production? A certain singer? Just keep that in mind. That not everybody will like every singer and every production and every composer. And some times they’ll have a public forum to say so and be lucky enough to have readers interested in their opinion (yes, this is a privilege and I do my darnest to earn it.)

To artists and arts administrators I say: just go on with your job and focus on your work. That should be your response.

And I am not talking out of school: I have been on both sides. My two books have received some good reviews and award shortlists, and some mixed reviews and a couple of negative reviews and some indifference/no reviews too. I think indifference is probably something you want the least. But it’s true: we remember certain sentences from negative reviews for a long time to come, and the stuff from positive reviews pales with time. (Unless you’re a massive narcissist… in which case, viceversa.)

Those of us who have had our work reviewed should also keep in mind: it’s incomparably better to create something and have it commented upon by other people, than spending your life commenting on other people’s work. Some of criticism certainly equals creation: but that takes more time, more studiousness, knowledge of wider culture, a longer view, maybe the book format or film or TV documentary format. And some of the ad hoc reviews for the media, which do an extremely important public service, will also be works of art, if the luck strikes. But overall, reviewing is derivative because it depends on something else for it to exist, whereas creation is creation.

So: stop worrying and get on with the work. Neither good reviews nor bad reviews should matter to a creator. You do your art the way you feel it must be done and keep going and growing.

There’s something else that’s been worrying me lately regarding Toronto’s opera and classical scene: a certain uniformization and overlap of reviewing and performing circles. Everybody is friends with everybody. These writers went to same music school and performed with those other people. This reviewer being hired by an arts organization for task X or Y, then a few months later writing about the same organization as a journalist or critic. This editor hanging out with this executive, this donor or board member working for both an org and a magazine. This person dating that person, and having the same social circles as that other person. Everybody schmoozing at the same parties.

Under similar circumstances, it becomes extremely difficult to express disagreement of any substantial kind, or to even soberly look at a work of art. Everything will be great, everything will be a miracle.

And that’s simply not healthy. And it destroys the art of the positive review too: if everything is good, nothing is. The positive review loses its purpose and its credibility.

Now, carry on. And–genuinely–thanks for reading.

16 thoughts on “Oh the uproar

  1. Lydia, you’re a very bright person. Are you telling me you weren’t emulating that discursive antichrist, that troll of trolls, Donald Trump in deliberately being controversial? you go see a bel canto opera and then attack it for doing what a bel canto opera usually does? A woman who chooses her words as carefully as you?

    And then you say (at least twice) a kind of evasion. “just go on with your job and focus on your work. That should be your response.” Really?

    Whatever your hypothesis, congratulations on an intriguing experiment.

    It’s nice to be noticed. Was this a test to see if anyone was listening? Lord knows there are days when one may wonder: is everyone blind & deaf..?

    Guess what, you were heard.

  2. I think the only thing one can do is continue to review honestly as you see it. One can’t be influenced by the groupthink. I hate writing seriously negative reviews and they cost me a lot of emotional pain and often lost sleep but I still write them. Happily, sometimes one gets validated. For example, I didn’t join in the, to me inexplicable (or at least the only explanation I can find is deeply uncharitable), love fest for “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe” which I thought was truly awful. I took some stick for that but I also got a lot of affirmation back channel from people I respect along the lines of “Thank goodness somebody had the guts…” It’s not the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Sadly, performers can’t afford to be too publicly outspoken in the current climate so to some extent one is left hanging in the wind.

    You are right that there is a degree of incestuousness in the Toronto opera world and I really question whether people who are performers should be reviewing companies they want to get work from. One can only hope that editors don’t allow themselves to get sucked into the mutual back slapping and continue to commission and publish serious criticism rather than Pollyannaish PR fluff.

    FWIW I value your voice as an unusual thoughtful and thought provoking one. Even if sometimes I think you are dead wrong! You bring perspectives into play in reviewing that are rarely present in Toronto arts criticism which tends to be culturally and ideologically homogeneous (and a bit provincial – “cultural cringe” casts a long shadow). Also FWIW, though I chose to express my opinion slightly differently, I largely shared your view on Anna Bolena; a musically and dramatically weak opera in a misguided and unsuccessful production, somewhat redeemed by some very fine singing. You may not agree with the third point!

    Anyhow, I hope you don’t get too discouraged as I want to keep reading your views.

    1. Very much so

      >>I really question whether people who are performers should be reviewing companies they want to get work from. One can only hope that editors don’t allow themselves to get sucked into the mutual back slapping and continue to commission and publish serious criticism rather than Pollyannaish PR fluff.>>

    2. Please read our review of Rita Joe in latest issue of Opera Canada for another take that also definitely didn’t join in the lovefest while still treating performers fairly as did you.

        1. Would have liked to share online but simply wasn’t possible at that time due to other priorities. Thanks for taking one for the team!

  3. If we don’t really say what we think about a performance, what is the point of reviewing, at all? I thought your Bolena review was absolutely reasonable. If I ever have to sit through another performance of Radvanovsky again I will not be so kind.

    1. I want to get you a ticket to one of her queens just to see what you come up with 😉 My one experience hearing her live was a riot for all sorts of reasons and it caused me to write a writeup that still makes me smile whenever I re-read it.

  4. Your review of Anna Bolena actually made me want to see it – I’ll take a traditional production over the Regietheatre pablum we’re usually served any day.

      1. A pablum for every taste! Truly though I feel it’s more about is this a production that ‘works’, moves you, surprises etc whatever its aesthetic that is most important. Aye there is certainly a lot of hipster pablum out there to feed sextuplets- and equal bowls full of conservative gruel.

  5. Just been involved in a Facebook conversation with people who might reasonably be described as “ordinary opera goers”. Not COC subscribers but go to some shows every year. Not the sort of people who write angry letters to the editor of “Opera Canada” (they’ve likely never heard of it). Reaction to Bolena generally negative, mostly on “what’s the point of it” grounds. I think it rather underscores Gianmarco’s point that it’s not “trad” vs “Regie” for anybody but a band of dyed (died?) in the wool cultural and political conservatives. It’s “does this engage me intellectually and/or emotionally?”. For me, and you, Bolena failed on both counts and good singing alone can’t make me want to sit in a dark theatre for three hours watching the scenery go by.

    1. EXACTLY. Thanks for telling me that. As I’ve gotten to know the enraged Bolena-heads a bit more these last few days, I can say with some confidence that it’s roughly the same crowd that got outraged by Tim Albery’s Aida. It’s important what you say about “regular opera goers, not the opera buffs”. A person who gets to choose between a great book, a great TV show, a live performance of a band that she loves, a sports event or just spending time with their loved ones will not be attracted to AB for the reasons that some of us may be. They need an ACTUAL reason or two.

      1. Except the difference between the Bolenaheads and the Aida-heads (???) is that it’s the same group, but their rage is targeted at different ends…with Aida, against the director and with Bolena with the reviewer for daring to criticize a production that adheres to their idea of what opera ‘should’ look like…vs Albery’s Aida which offended because it wasn’t frocks and tiaras. I know you know this all…but to me, it’s just fascinating to observe. One wonders when we’ll finally just be able to judge productions on their intrinsic merits as John Gilks points out, and be done with all this frou frou, red velvet and gilded baggage???

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