Opera News No Longer in Time Out

There is power in numbers. As an audience, our voice needs to matter more to the creative and political minds that use our money to create a vision – a vision that should be collaborative, not individualistic.

How could the board of directors at the most powerful opera house in the world have decided that it was a good move to ban Opera News from reviewing their productions – all on the account of simply receiving bad reviews? If we perceive reviews as progress indicators for the rest of the community, it is inconceivable to think that in deciding what is best for their non-profit organization the Met opted to cut the company’s developmental status off from tens of thousands of devoted followers; many of whom are genuinely passionate about the company (despite any shortcomings they may appear to have). It is also inconceivable to think that, since the organization relies on money from a supportive community, they would actively seek to block any outside influence from obtaining their fill of the company’s well-being and state of affairs. Many opera lovers around the world depend on nothing but a handful of monthly publications and blogs to remain “up-to-date” with the biggest opera company on earth. We’re sincerely curious: by what grounds of all that is practical from a business point of view did such a stunt like this seem like it was a good idea? OperaPulse followers from all over the country came up with words like “ridiculous,” “arrogant,” “childish,” “dangerous,” and “insecure” to describe how they feel about it. This particular opera lover especially empathized with the sentiment “words absolutely escape me.” We just have to ask: how in the world did Peter Gelb and the board of directors of the Metropolitan opera believe that this stunt would be beneficial to their company?  And, moreover, to their fans?

Let’s get one thing straight before everyone starts to think I’m bashing the worlds’ most prominent opera house: I love the Met. I support it every year. I live in NYC and I frequent their productions as much as possible. They create art on the grandest of scales, they are at the forefront of artistic avant garde and most of what they produce is nothing short of mesmerizing (2010’s La Damnation de Faust anyone?). I love everything from the gift shop (albeit things can get a bit pricey) to the patrons lounge to their community outreach. They have it going on. Year after year, the Met has it going on like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.  But why the cheap trash? I mean, seriously? The Met already is aware of it’s gigantic status in the world. I question whether they’re managing the responsibility that goes hand-in-hand with such prowess with the dignity, humility and open mindedness that is necessary.

Let’s contemplate… Just how powerful is the Met? In February, the Wall Street Journal quoted the Met’s 2012 operating budget at $325 millon (43% of which coming from private donations). To put it in perspective, the New York Yankees, the most powerful sports team in American history, will operate at $225 million in 2012. Given, you can’t compare the two teams on an entertainment or even business level, but my comparison is relevant if you evaluate the operating budgets of both entities’ competitors. Compared to the Yankees, the Boston Red Sox 2012 payroll is $187.5 million and compared to the Met, San Francisco Opera’s 2012 operating budget is just over $71 million. Based on these stats, it’s safe to say that the Met is on their own planet.

In regard to the matter at hand: I’ll call special attention to the fact that I have frequented the Met each season in the past few years as a sort of proof that I can accurately assess and conclude that the many reviews the guild produces in Opera News are, in a sense, right in tune. Quite frankly, they’re just being honest. Talk about integrity! The very institution they are supposed to be advocating, so that it can reach a higher than the already stratospheric realm it encompasses, becomes reduced; on the even playing ground with the rest; dare-I-say-it… ordinary.  I, for one, appreciate this honesty. Not only does it bring the creative and political minds of the internal super-structure of the Met down a notch, but such prose actually might get the Met to start listening to it’s own listeners. Maybe your productions do need a bit of a change.

This brings me to my point. Art is probably the most subjective entity on the planet. As artists, we get good reviews and we get bad reviews. It’s kind of like a boxing match: when you win, it’s sensational and when you lose, you just roll with the punches. As artists, critics should by no means have the ability to define who we are through our art.  To the same effect, as an audience member, critics should by no means have ability to tell us how we have to feel. Criticism is meant to provide one point of view as to what we do well and what we need to work on. I’m sure many members of the Met audience have disagreed with the bad reviews. It’s unfathomable that the Met refused to acknowledge the importance of criticism, and, what is more shocking, that they refused to acknowledge the importance it has for their supporters.

Aristotle once said, “There’s a foolish corner in the brain of the wisest man.” Like life, you can’t perfect, but we’ll love you just same – blemishes and all. You get a bad review, heck, we’ll come back and support you. I wonder if the board stopped to ask how this would affect their fans. But when you deliberately put self first, and disregard the very people that have put you in the exalted position in the first place, it’s nearly unimaginable. I’m reminded of the 20th century operatic spokesperson and perhaps one of the greatest opera lovers of all time, the late Milton Cross. He always believed that opera is what you liked, not what someone else tells you to like.

In a 1961 radio broadcast, Milton emphasized that, “The majority of our listeners, by far are plain, average, American folks who have never attended an operatic performance but who have made acquaintance with it and come to love it entirely through radio. That the number of such listeners extends into the millions is the richest and most encouraging reward possible.”

Now, I imagine that there is a difference between the radio-broadcast in the supposed “golden era” of opera and that of the Opera News publications and Live in HD Met broadcasts of today, but there is one simple message to take from the opera announcer whose legacy spanned through four decades of Met history: respect your audience. For it is vast and it is important.

Here’s our hope: now that the drama has been somewhat righted as they’ve granted Opera News the ability to re-review their productions, I sincerely hope that the opera guild continues to be as honest as they have been. If Opera News gives into the seemingly over sensitivity of the ever-powerful Met and integrity isn’t enforced in their vital reviews, everyone fails.  The Met might as well completely stop listening to everyone around them and work solely within their own agenda. Most of the time, the individualistic entity just aint all that. We hope too, that this little occurrence revitalizes the Met’s internal pulse and helps them to reprioritize the way they make decisions, both politically and artistically.  And maybe, just maybe listen harder to the people who should matter most: the audience.