In 2005, the opera “Lost Childhood” had a read-through, with singers and piano, through American Opera Projects in New York City. Like many operas these days, it’s based on a true story. It depicts a conversation between a character named Judah, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, inspired by the New York-based psychiatrist Yehuda Nir (who wrote a memoir called “The Lost Childhood”), and a character named Manfred, a German child of Nazi sympathizers, inspired by Richard Wagner’s great-grandson, Gottfried Wagner. The work was intense, full of conversation -- a “New York Times” review questioned whether opera was the best medium for the subject -- and still had to be orchestrated. In a recent phone interview Charles Jarden, the head of American Opera Projects, said that the composer, Janice Hamer, promised to get back to him when she had completed the orchestration -- and that she didn’t show up until almost seven years later, when she lined up a concert performance of the opera with the National Philharmonic, at Strathmore, this past weekend.
The Strathmore performance, conducted by Piotr Gajewski and starring Michael Hendrick and Christopher Trakas as Judah and Manfred, took place on Saturday night, the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass [corrected],” when Nazis systematically attacked Jewish-owned businesses and buildings throughout German and Austria. Gottfried Wagner himself was in attendance.[Correction: A last-minute visa problem prevented Gottfried Wagner from attending.] So were a number of critics, including one from the Washington Post (which covered the event in an advance piece on the blog “On Faith”). When that critic arrived at the hall and opened the program, however, he discovered that he had personal connections to several members of the cast -- which, according to the standards of journalistic objectivity, meant that he couldn’t write about the performance.
Above: A news broadcast about the opera “Lost Childhood,” performed at Strathmore this weekend, includes excerpts of Janice Hamer’s score.
It was not ever thus. The music world has always been a small and interconnected place, and review anthologies are littered with examples of people reviewing friends, sometimes turning friends into enemies in the process. One of the first names that comes up when this topic is mentioned is Virgil Thomson, the composer who was for years also the chief classical music critic of the New York Herald Tribune, where he reviewed colleagues and friends and presenters of his music and people he hoped would present his music with a blatant partiality that flies in the face of journalistic ethics.
I often say that it’s impossible for a reviewer to write without personal bias; personal bias, after all, is the foundation of the opinions that are a critic’s stock in trade. Furthermore, the longer one operates in the music world -- or in any other relatively small community bound by a single common interest -- the more difficult it is not to know the people about whom one is writing. One has interviewed them, heard past performances, developed a stock of information and opinions that can make it hard to hear a well-known figure freshly -- though one of the enduring delights of my job, I believe, is going to a concert and being surprised by an unexpected performance from an artist one thought one knew well.
Yet the fact that a critic’s job is in some sense essentially subjective makes it all the more imperative for a critic to hold oneself to the highest standards of professional accountability. This means staying to the very end of a concert; this means checking the program carefully to see who actually performed; this means not writing about one’s friends and family members. Most of us who have been reviewing for a long time have erred in one or more of these regards at least a couple of times. I was once sent to review a family member by an editor who said s/he trusted me to be objective, and it was a thoroughly unpleasant experience, largely, and unexpectedly, because the family member managed to read a veiled criticism into every one of my comments. This was, at least, an object lesson for me in how the things you write can and will be perceived in ways you never intended.
Journalists are always being accused of partiality, of bias, of clubbiness, of favoritism. Writing reviews of your friends would, if it were allowed, confirm the impression that only those who have friends in high places get coverage, at a time when coverage, in the classical music world, at least, is harder than ever to get. It would also further the erroneous but widely held view that reviews are personally motivated, and to be taken personally. Obviously, a musician who is criticized harshly in the newspaper feels personally attacked, but this makes it all the more essential that the review not, in fact, be personal (though I have heard, in my two decades of doing this job, an amazing range of fictions about my ostensible motivations in writing one thing or another). One risk, it’s true, is that personal partiality may sway a reviewer to be overly kind to an undeserving work; but even more, there is a risk that a too-honest review can destroy a friendship.
Unfortunately these standards come at a price for the creators, presenters, and cast of “A Lost Childhood,” who are deprived of coverage, at least from one outlet, of their work. I have, however, heard from some audience members who found the performance meaningful, and I excerpt their letters below. I’d also be interested to hear from others who attended “A Lost Childhood.” What did you think of the performance?
I hestitate to throw open the door to a discussion of critical conflicts of interest, since they’re a favorite topic of readers and performers, all of whom have stories of corrupt critics writing about friends and family, or leaving before the performance was over, or writing reviews of performers who were scheduled to appear, but didn’t. But if you have something fresh to contribute to a discussion of this topic, the door is open.
Edited to add excerpts of readers’ letters:
J. Max Weintraub, Alexandria: “The interview’s questions and answers highlighted the importance of the work, which addresses post-Holocaust feelings of victimhood, guilt, grief, anguish and anger. Hamer’s powerful and complicated score, combined with the libretto drafted by her cousin, Baltimore librettist Mary Azrael, combined to leave much of the audience — and, indeed, many members of the National Philharmonic that performed the music — in tears, but contemplative of the complex work they’d just experienced.”