Postscript: on opera and the critics’ responsibility

I have already had my say about the case of Tara Erraught, the mezzo-soprano who was so soundly criticized for being “dumpy” in Glyndebourne’s new “Der Rosenkavalier.” But as the discussion continues to rage online, and the glee of the critic-bashers mounts, I feel the need to make three more points.

One: A singer’s appearance is relevant to what he or she does. A critic’s appearance is not. I speak as someone who long had to contend with the fact that I did not look like what people thought a critic was supposed to look like; I had a couple of run-ins with ushers trying to oust me from press seats at various venues. (“Those are the New York Times seats!” scolded an usher at Lincoln Center.) Describing in a review how a singer looks is perfectly germane. The problem, to me, lies in praising a vocal performance highly, but then treating this as if it were a negligible part of the overall effect.

And some of you are quite right: we critics are not capable of getting up and singing a performance themselves. If we could, we would certainly be in the wrong line of work.

Two: “Opera is all about the voice.” “Opera is all about the drama.” “The voice-visual ratio is 75-25.” Just stop it. No art form is subject to this kind of formulaic prescription. I’ve been at opera performances where the staging was awful but the singing was glorious, and nothing else mattered. I’ve been at opera performances where the production was so compelling that I was willing to overlook so-so singing. These things have to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Any time you make rules about what art “has” to be, you’re doing it wrong.

The issue in Erraught’s case is that the critics appeared to be praising her singing but saying that “glorious” singing wasn’t enough to make it a good performance. My suspicion is that, had the singing really been as glorious as all that, they might not have focused so much on the looks.

Three: Who deserves to be criticized for what? This is a complicated issue, and one that, I know all too well, is easy for critics to get wrong. If we don’t like the way a singer acts, is it her fault, or the fault of the director? if we don’t like the way she looks, is it her body that’s at issue, or the costume designer who let her go out on stage that way? Again, there are no simple answers. (I once blamed a director for something I saw, and later considered, in print, the possibility that I had been wrong — which, given some of my later responses to that director’s work, seems not unlikely.) In the case of Erraught, the costume designer should have come in for some pretty strong criticism; Erraught took the heat at her expense.

In conclusion: this kind of flap brings out a lot of vitriol toward the critics, and calls for resignations (which, take it from an insider, are futile; no editor is going to ask a critic to resign based on lots of popular reaction to a controversial statement). However, beware of overreacting and adopting the facile position that critics are so awful we’d all be better off without them. Sure, we critics sometimes get it wrong, and we sometimes make mistakes, and I think that in this case the puppy-fat comment, especially, is beyond the pale. But it’s not a critic’s job to be liked, or to pander to popular tastes. It’s a critic’s job to give a considered reaction (there is much food for thought in all of these reviews, apart from the Erraught passages), and help spark the kind of debate that demonstrates how much people care about the art form, whichever side of an argument they happen to take.

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” people say, and I wonder if Tara Erraught’s career will move into an even higher gear, and whether more people will tune into the live-stream of “Der Rosenkavalier” on June 8, as a result of this impassioned discussion. At the very least, many of us now know and care about a production we’ll probably never get to see live, which bears out another truism: the only thing worse than bad criticism is no criticism at all.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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