The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why a newspaper trashed its own opera review.

Luca Pisaroni in Rossini’s “Maometto II” at the Santa Fe Opera in 2012. David Alden’s production just came to the Canadian Opera Company, and when a critic was critical, his review was taken down. (Photo: AP/Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)

Two weeks ago, Canada’s National Post took down a review of the Canadian Opera Company’s “Maometto II.” On Tuesday afternoon, they put it up again.

In the meantime, their critic – Arthur Kaptainis, who took a buyout from the Montreal Gazette in 2007 and has been contributing stories and reviews on a freelance basis to both the Gazette and the National Post in the years since – resigned. Which, for a freelancer, may be as simple as ceasing to pitch reviews.

Especially when the editor is hardly banging down the door to get them.

Indeed, Dustin Parkes, the executive producer for features at the National Post, took down the review of his own volition, because of an e-mail from the Canadian Opera Company. The company didn’t ask him to take down the review. They just asked for two corrections.

One correction: Kaptainis referred to a dancer as a ballerina. “There is no way that the dancer could be considered a ballerina. She’s clearly a belly dancer,” wrote Jennifer Pugsley, the company’s media relations manager, in her e-mail to Parkes on May 4, which she provided to the Washington Post.

The other correction involved an incorrect photo credit. Kaptainis, of course, had nothing to do with that.

Pugsley did, however, go on in the e-mail to air her grievances to Parkes.

“I have to confess that Arthur’s reviews continue to baffle many of us at the COC,” she wrote. “His opinion is his opinion, and he’s entitled to it, all we ask for from our critics is a fair and open-minded consideration of what we present on our stage. It’s becoming more and more challenging to see that kind of thoughtfulness in his reviews.”

When a newspaper runs a review by a critic, it’s a sign of implicit support of the critic — even if the critic’s views differ from an editor’s, or a reader’s, or the subject of the review. This principle does not seem hard to grasp when it involves a paper’s editorial page. Parkes’s response to Pugsley, however, was hardly a model of institutional support.

What he should have said is, “Thanks for writing. I will make these corrections immediately, and will be happy to talk further about our coverage.”

What he did say, in a prompt response to Pugsley, was, “Oh, wow. I will take it down immediately, and wait until we have the time to adjust it to put it back up again.”

“I really hate running reviews for performing arts,” he continued. “They simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content. On the other hand, I really want to give attention to performing arts, especially for the best stuff this country is producing. I think the way to best do this, and get eyeballs on the content as well, is to emphasize the visuals being created, either through photography or video.”

Photography and video are well and good. But running them in lieu of a review is tantamount to simple PR. And creating PR for arts institutions isn’t a newspaper’s, or a reviewer’s, job. Informed coverage is: which means reporting on what happened, and placing it in a larger context for readers — with the understanding that, whether you’re writing about David Alden’s “Maometto II” or Bernie Sanders, your coverage is likely to provoke a range of reactions and stimulate debate, and the person you’re writing about isn’t always going to like it.

Parkes did take down the review, but neglected to contact Kaptainis. On Friday the 6th, Kaptainis noticed the review was gone, and e-mailed Parkes. Parkes, who had responded to Pugsley’s e-mail within 20 minutes, didn’t get around to answering Kaptainis until Monday the 9th, to tell him why he’d taken the review down (over, as Parkes confirmed on Tuesday by e-mail, a single word.)

‘Initially I said something conciliatory,” Kaptainis said by telephone on Tuesday. “Then I thought about it for 24 hours, and I wasn’t sleeping well. I told him to spike the review.”

That, Parkes says, was “the last time I heard from him.”

The review was never scheduled to run in print.

On Tuesday, the website Musical Toronto posted the review on their site. “While we are sensitive to concerns over unwarranted prejudice,” they wrote, “we feel this review is balanced and have published it the spirit of open and fair criticism.” The story was picked up by Norman Lebrecht on Slipped Disc, his widely-read and often controversial classical music blog. By Tuesday afternoon, the National Post had put the story back up – minus the entire sentence involving the dancer. (Kaptainis was thoughtfully critical of the director David Alden’s approach in a production that had its premiere in 2012 at the Santa Fe Opera.)

The story is all too reminiscent of the situation at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which yielded to pressure from the Cleveland Orchestra to reassign its chief classical music critic, Donald Rosenberg. Rosenberg subsequently sued, and lost.

What it shows is a waning understanding of, and tolerance for, not differences of opinion — those rage happily on in every paper’s Comments sections — but the role of criticism and the arts in a society where they have less dominance. Parkes will be vilified in the arts community for his comments, but he’s right: newspaper reviews don’t do well online.

This isn’t a condemnation, but a challenge. The Internet is a fertile medium for criticism. People love to give opinions, often harsh ones: witness the popularity, and contentiousness, of Amazon comments threads, or sites like Goodreads where you can read a range of commentary about books. The principle that arts are important, and discussing them, thinking about them, questioning them, is alive and well. And it’s on just that principle that newspapers run arts reviews. The challenge lies in finding ways to make the connection, to find a way to escape from the formulas of newspaper criticism and hook into the audience that’s eager to be part of the debate.

There are lots of ways to talk about how to improve, enliven, and retool reviews, and those of us who write them are having those conversations all the time. For an editor, the solution is to talk to the writer about the issue. It’s not to stifle a smart, thoughtful review like Kaptainis’s.

Or maybe it is. Because however poorly that review performed last week, I’d bet that in the wake of all the attention this story is currently receiving, it is doing pretty well. No attention online? Parkes may have stumbled on the very answer to his problem.