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Classical Beat
Posted at 03:55 PM ET, 05/22/2012

Peter and the press

UPDATE: At 4:01 PM, the Metropolitan Opera sent out a press release saying that, in view of the reaction to the news, the Met had decided that Opera News will, in fact, be allowed to continue to review Metropolitan Opera productions.

A couple of weeks ago, I started a long blog post about the fact that Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, had gone after a freelance blogger for WQXR and managed to get the station to take down a blog post she wrote that was critical of him. I’m annoyed that I didn’t post my piece -- somehow I was prevented from finishing it to my satisfaction -- because it focused on two topics I thought were relevant to the story. One is the state of journalism in today’s media climate: the institution that hosted the blog clearly didn’t understand the nature of journalistic responsibility (including the fact that once something is published, you can distance yourself from it by plastering it with editors’ notes, but taking it down is not kosher). The other is the way that people who get criticized respond to criticism in an age when you can answer anything, immediately, on-line.

Now, those topics are somewhat dwarfed by a more immediate piece of news: Peter Gelb has gone on the rampage again. The New York Times has reported (on Page One) that he’s set his sights on Opera News, the leading opera magazine in America and a publication of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and is forcing them to stop writing reviews of the Met. You could say that this is still a story about arts journalism, and/or the way people respond to criticism; but the takeaway now seems to me to be that Gelb is losing his mind.
The Devil in a white suit (image from Des McAnuff’s production of “Faust” at the English National Opera, a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera); is Peter Gelb trying to bend the universe to his command? (Photo by Catherine Ashmore) (Catherine Ashmore)

I’m not sure what Gelb thinks he’s gaining by going so publically after the voices that annoy him. The Met has just spent millions of dollars on a new Ring production that not very many people like; Gelb gambled big and lost, perhaps for the first time, since his other biggest gamble at the Met, the HD broadcasts, has been a stunning success. Now, he seems to be lashing out in bitter denial, though his ability to act effectively is somewhat limited. He can’t, for instance, go after Alex Ross, who recently wrote a review in the New Yorker that was probably more blistering, and more widely read, than either the WQXR blog post (though that’s gotten far more readers since he had it taken down than it probably would have had he ignored it) or Brian Kellow’s strong and thoughtful editorial in Opera News, evidently one of the triggers for this Opera News fiasco.

The idea that Opera News is the Met’s house organ is somewhat spurious at this point. Opera News is a publication of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, which is a support organization for the Met -- that is, the Guild exists to support the Met, not the other way round. The Met is not paying for Opera News. It’s true that Opera News was initially conceived as a house organ, but over time it’s evolved into an independent journalistic entity -- one that’s fiercely beloved of opera-lovers all over the country (as well as of journalists like me who got their start there; my first articles in the United States, and my first-ever music reviews, were assigned and published by Opera News).

It’s “independent,” though, only to a degree. Opera News gives the Met tremendous support, publicizing its broadcasts, writing articles about its singers and productions -- and writing reviews of its performances. All of this falls, to me, under the heading of arts advocacy. I’ve said before on this blog that I don’t consider writing positive reviews to be an act of advocacy: if all reviews are positive, there is no reason to read them, and the point of the exercise is gone. Advocacy means keeping as much writing about classical music visible in as many publications as possible, and providing stimulus and a forum for debate. Different points of view are necessary if there is to be meaningful discussion of the arts; debate, not sycophancy, is what keeps the arts alive. The idea that a publication only supports an institution by being positive about it is amateur stuff.*

In any case, trying to quash negative statements about a bad production doesn’t change anything about the production, or even about the way people feel about the production. Does Gelb think that somehow more people will like the Ring if they can’t read the negative review in Opera News? And, more to the point, does he think that they will like future Met productions more if they can’t read future, possibly negative Opera News reviews of them? Since Opera News has long been a lifeline for people all over America who are hungry for opera and can’t regularly get to Met productions, and Opera News has often written positive reviews as well as negative ones, Gelb’s act of vengeance seems short-sighted. It doesn’t stand to benefit his company in the long run, and it pisses off some of the Met’s most enduring fans, which Opera News has obligingly, for years, been cultivating for him.

And it seems surprising that an experienced marketer like Gelb, however sensitive he may be to writing he finds off-message, would opt to attack a field that’s already beleaguered, that of arts journalism, and actively work to hobble one of the few organs in the world devoted to writing seriously about his company’s own art form. Not only does opera writing need all the help it can get, but a seasoned professional, surely, should understand that the negative press he’s generating with all these defensive moves makes him look far worse than any of the pieces he’s working so hard to silence.

How much negative press, you ask? Here are some thoughts fromThe Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott, Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun, Lisa Hirsch at Iron Tongue of Midnight, Parterre Box, Brian Holt at Out West Arts, Paul Pelkonen at Superconductor, David Stabler at the Oregonian, and, of course, Norman Lebrecht. Lebrecht is even calling for a boycott of Met coverage, which is easy enough to do now that the season is over.

*A point I wanted to make in my earlier, unpublished blog post is that one problem with the new media landscape is that outlets seem increasingly not to understand basic things about the role of an institution with regard to the criticism it publishes. The Cleveland Plain Dealer caving to pressure from the Cleveland Orchestra and taking its music critic off the orchestra beat, rather than standing behind him, could be seen as a one-off. But the WQXR incident showed an institution that was relatively new to the business of propagating print content not quite knowing how the game is played: that you stand behind your writer, even if you don’t agree with what s/he has written, unless there are demonstrable errors; and that, as I said above, if you do want to distance yourself from a piece, you can plaster it with editor’s notes, but trying to expunge it from the record is a form of dishonesty.

By  |  03:55 PM ET, 05/22/2012

 
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