Daily Bow: Eating Your Words

Daily Bow LogoWagner’s epic Ring Cycle is no stranger to controversy. It stands alone in the operatic repertoire as massive work, a positive behemoth, combining folkloric but epic story-telling, beautiful but wildly imaginative and intricate music, and, above all, all-consuming drama. The result, as most music-lovers know, is a four-opera saga that runs nearly fifteen hours in playing time. From the very first performances, the operas inspired wildly different opinions, and even the first stagings were a struggle: Wagner’s sponsor for the project, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, insisted upon “preview runs” of the operas before Wagner wanted them seen. From that point on, the Ring Cycle has had a legacy of pushing and pulling over everything from interpretation to staging to production design to casting to location. Despite the myriad different takes on the operas–many of which have embraced the trend of “updating” operatic classics by cloaking the production in the trappings of a different time, place, or society–the popularity and pull of a complete Ring Cycle in performance remains undeniable.

The four-opera cycle is a massive undertaking for any opera company, not only artistically, but financially and logistically. As such, each cycle is subjected to quite a bit of hype, scrutiny, and publicity–no production of the complete cycle will escape the notice of critics and audiences, and, since these cycles typically happen rather infrequently, any interpretation will be memorable in much the same way that every Olympic Games is memorable. This year was the Metropolitan Opera’s turn, and this season marked the first time in 20 years that the Met had embarked upon an entirely new production of the Ring Cycle. The Met, which uncontestedly holds the top spot in the hierarchy of American opera companies, could hardly have avoided close scrutiny of its new production. The Cycle was performed three times, starting in early April and ending with the third and final cycle this past weekend, on May 12. The Met’s website refers to its new production, helmed by Robert Lepage, as “the most ambitious production the Met has ever attempted.” Given the Met’s illustrious history at the very top of international opera, that is quite a statement.

The production’s ambition focused on its physical and visual conceptualization. The staging is extraordinarily ambitious, featuring a rotating, shape-shifting set that utilizes not only horizontal but vertical space, and the visual artistry that accompanies it is founded in videography that is, to say the least, wildly imaginative. The Metropolitan Opera website has devoted a mini-site to this year’s Ring Cycle, and there is no doubt that the behind-the-scenes trailer for the production is striking. The video, which seeks to entice the audience with a montage of scenes from all four operas, is almost cinematic in scope, featuring moments of high drama and showcasing the truly stunning visuals of the production. There is almost no singing in the video, though, which serves to reinforce the perception of the viewer that this is more than simply an opera production–this is a full-on, multimedia event. This approach has received the widest possible range of reviews, from unconditional raves to scathing rants, and the collection of reviews on the New York Times website attests to the spectrum of reactions that this new production has incited.

One of these many reviews of the production has garnered quite a bit of national attention, both for the content of the review and for the course it took in its short life. The post in question was made by a regular contributor to the Operavore blog on the website of  New York’s WQXR radio station, and it was a loudly negative review of the Met’s Ring production, framed by the contributor’s summary of a New York Times interview with the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb. Olivia Giovetti, the article’s author, introduced her summary by quoting the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross as writing of the “Ring” production, “Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.” She said one of the production’s chief problems was failing to live up to the hype that had preceded it. Some of her comments were also directed at Mr. Gelb. “Like any good marketer,” she wrote, “he firmly believes in his product, even if no one else does.” Ms. Giovetti  further wrote that the Met under Mr. Gelb “bears the mothball-like scent of an oligarchy.” She also implied that Mr. Gelb had worried more about the noises from the production’s huge rotating set than about the safety of the performers.

The review was pulled from the Operavore site less than a day after it was first posted, and it was removed at the personal request of Peter Gelb himself.“I told her I thought it was objectionable,” Mr. Gelb said. “It was an awful and nasty piece, which in my opinion was totally unjustified.” When asked by the New York Times, Mr. Gelb declined to say whether he had or had not personally asked for the removal of the objectionable piece. Mr. Gelb further added when speaking with the Times that he “has on occasion complained about unfairness or factual errors to other publications” (including The New York Times) but generally refrains from doing so. On the radio station’s side of things, by way of explanation, Laura Walker, the president and chief executive of WQXR’s parent, New York Public Radio, said in a telephone interview with the New York Times on Monday that the post “wasn’t up to our high standards” and was already under review when she heard from Mr. Gelb. Emphasizing that she had not made the decision in response to Gelb’s complaint, she said the station’s editorial staff  had already put the piece under review when the complaint was made. She further told the Times that WQXR would “not shy away from criticizing the Met and anything they do,” while making sure such pieces were fair and accurate. As for the piece by Giovetti, Ms. Walker characterized it as not a review and “not exactly opinion either” and said the piece did not go through the usual chain of editors. “Somebody decided erroneously that speed was better than proper vetting,” she said. “It was a breakdown in the process.”

Without commenting too much on the specifics of the situation, which is at the very best a he-said/she-said argument, one does need to pause and think. The tradition of reviews is as much a part of classical music as the music itself, and the writing of reviews has come to be something of an art form on its own merits. The review process itself, especially in blog form, is intended to let all comers write pieces that speak to their own individual takes on musical performances, and sometimes those takes are not flattering, not positive, and–let’s be honest–not fair. But do any of these negative aspects call for the removal of a piece, particularly when it comes at the request of a subject who has a large financial and personal stake in the success of the reviewed endeavor? The review in question by Ms. Giovetti was nowhere to be found, and it seems that this is a case of the kind of oligarchy of which she wrote. Bad reviews, unfair reviews, and all-around nasty reviews are part of the game in classical music. They’re not a fun part of the game, but they are always there. No matter how nasty the review, unless it borders on slanderous or untrue, it is the job of the reviewed–who put their wares out for public performance and viewing–to take or leave the criticism gracefully. There is something dictatorial about going over an author’s head to personally have a review of one’s work removed, and no matter what the content of the article, there are always better options for how to combat the opinions expressed therein. This is a subjective art, and it’s a scary one: someone is always bound to love you, and someone is always bound to hate you, particularly when a risk is taken on the magnitude of the Met’s Ring production. At the end of the day, the priority should be a productive dialogue about art and expression, and it is the responsibility of both parties to abide by an amicable, professional social contract to ensure that the classical music community is always one that is healthy and made healthier by constructive criticism. So, to both sides in this issue: let’s keep things civil and professional, and above all, remember that every one of us is an artist who is putting something on the line, whether it is written in a review or produced onstage at the Met. This is a human art: it’s about people, it’s for people, and it’s made by people, and as soon as we start losing track of the humanity that is intrinsic to what we do, we start to lose ourselves.

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