NYTimes: Bad Opera News Is No News

Wow, this is just off. Even the Singaporean in me balks at this level of censorship… NYTime’s latest report on the Met:

Latest Met Aria: Bad Opera News Is No News

Published: May 21, 2012

Opera News, 76 years old and one of the leading classical music magazines in the country, said on Monday that it would stop reviewing the Metropolitan Opera, a policy prompted by the Met’s dissatisfaction over negative critiques.

The decision by the magazine, which is published by a Met fund-raising affiliate, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and which freely reviews companies around the world, troubles some opera experts. It is also the latest sign of sensitivity from the Met under its general manager, Peter Gelb, in the face of criticism over its productions. The move came after a review in April took aim at the Met’s new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle — a hallmark of Mr. Gelb’s tenure that has led to a firestorm — and after a top Opera News editor criticized the Met’s direction in a scathing essay in the May issue.

Mr. Gelb said in an interview on Monday that the decision was made “in collaboration with the guild” but that he never liked the idea that an organization created to support the Met had a publication passing judgment on its productions. Worse yet, he said, is a publication that “continuously rips into” an institution that its parent is supposed to help.

Last month Mr. Gelb protested to WQXR over a blog posting that called his leadership into question. It was immediately pulled. Last year the Met asked a blogger to stop revealing programming choices for future seasons before the official announcement. The blogger complied.

The newest subject of wrath is Opera News. Citing a circulation of 100,000, the largest for a classical music magazine in the country, it provides information on Met casts and broadcasts and glossy profiles of star singers. Along with features on other opera houses, performers of past eras and festivals, it also publishes critiques of performances around the world by knowledgeable and respected reviewers. They have included professional musicians, academics and local newspaper critics.

“As of the June 2012 issue, Opera News is not reviewing Metropolitan Opera productions,” F. Paul Driscoll, the magazine’s editor in chief, said in a terse telephone interview. He declined to elaborate but acknowledged that no other opera company had been banished from its pages.

During Mr. Gelb’s tenure, the Met has tightened the reins on the guild.

The company’s assistant manager for operations, Stewart Pearce, was made managing director of the guild, and the Met plays a stronger role in its educational programs. Three guild board members also have ex officio positions on the Met board, and donors solicited by the Met receive a subscription to the magazine as a perquisite. Slightly fewer than half the subscribers receive it that way.

Mr. Gelb may have reason to be more sensitive these days. He is under enormous pressure to raise money for the Met’s voracious seasons, which command budgets in excess of $300 million. Mr. Gelb has also been a tireless promoter of theatrically innovative productions and the importance of replacing old productions with new ones. Both leave him open to fire from critics and traditionalists.

Opera News has reviewed Met productions continuously since at least the mid-1970s, Mr. Driscoll said. While not frequent, negative notices have periodically made their way in, to the discomfiture of previous Met administrations. But no ban was imposed, at least in recent decades.

In the April issue, a review by Fred Cohn criticized the staging of Götterdämmerung, the final work in the “Ring” cycle. The productions of the four operas, which finished their run this month and were directed by Robert Lepage, were the subject of much critical scorn, although they had many fans too. Mr. Lepage’s huge piece of machinery used for all the operas functioned as a lightning rod.

“The physical scale of Robert Lepage’s ‘Götterdämmerung’ may have been immense, but its ambitions seemed puny,” Mr. Cohn wrote.

An essay in the May issue by Brian Kellow, the features editor, may have spelled the end. It read, “The public is becoming more dispirited each season by the pretentious and woefully misguided, misdirected productions foisted on them.”

Mr. Gelb singled out the line in Monday’s interview. Such negative comments from a publication that is part of a Met support organization “certainly would not be in the best interests of the Met,” he said.

One prominent opera supporter saw the ban as something else: censorship.

“It is irrational and interferes with the business of presenting artistic events,” said Nathalie Wagner, president of the Wagner Society of New York and a longtime Opera News subscriber. “Censorship doesn’t work in other countries, and it should not exist here. We think Opera News does an excellent and a vital job in covering opera.”

David J. Levin, a professor at the University of Chicago and the editor of the academic journal Opera Quarterly, also criticized the decision. “It’s inconceivable to me that the Met wouldn’t welcome nuanced and challenging criticism,” he said. If the Met is serious about presenting innovative productions and repertory, he added, they should not be met with a “rubber stamp.”

Update: Not 24 hours later, the Met reverses itself. Whew. What were they thinking in the first place?!?! Perhaps the better question to ask is, how objective can Opera News be if it’s run by the Met? Perhaps it’s time for a spin-off?

Met Reverses Itself on Reviews Ban by Opera News

Published: May 22, 2012

The Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday backed away from its decision to bar reviews of its productions in Opera News, its affiliated magazine and the leading opera publication in the country.

The Met said an “outpouring of reaction” from opera fans on the Internet caused it to change course a day after The New York Times reported that Met officials and the publishers of Opera News had decided to stop reviewing Met shows.

“I think I made a mistake,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. “The Metropolitan Opera only exists with the good will of the public. Clearly the public would miss Opera News not being able to review the Met, and we are responding to that,” he added, referring to a “groundswell of disappointment.”

Opera News is published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, an organization set up in the 1930s to provide financial support for the Met. It is now a close auxiliary, run by a Met assistant manager.

Mr. Gelb had originally said it made no sense for Opera News to review performances by a company the Guild existed to support, especially when those reviews were negative.

A review of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” in the April issue was highly critical, and an essay in the May issue was scathing about the Met’s direction. “The public is becoming more dispirited each season by the pretentious and woefully misguided, misdirected productions foisted on them,” it read.

Along with nuts-and-bolts information about Met productions, Opera News, with a circulation of 100,000, features articles about singers and other opera houses, and includes reviews of recordings and performances from around the world.

While the magazine, founded in 1936, is closely linked to the Met, opera lovers look to it as a source of information about the field.

Many of those fans took to the digital barricades after hearing that the magazine was ceasing to publish reviews of the Met. The word “censorship” was frequently mentioned, and fans said the lack of critical debate was a loss to the opera world. Some said they would halt contributions or subscriptions to the Met.

“Shame on you, Mr. Gelb,” wrote a reader, CNR from Boynton Beach, Fla., on nytimes.com. “I sincerely hope you will reconsider this hasty decision, possibly made in a moment of anger.”

Others said the Met was well within its rights in pushing for the ban, especially after the May essay.


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