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February 26, 2007

Bad Arts Writing

John Stoehr

I don't know this journalist personally, nor do I doubt that he ordinarily excels at his job. However, his preview on Friday for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville on "The Barber of Seville" does more harm than good: "Don't be too quick to dismiss opera as an elitist art form for the rich and snooty" is his first sentence.

The logical fallacy here is that a reader who is not interested in Italian opera might be interested if addressed in a snappy writing style. The thinking is that if we can avoid all academic puffery, perhaps ordinary people will dig in.

Which sounds fine and dandy until the writer then goes ahead and gives the reader all that academic puffery anyway.

"This year's opera performance, the symphony's sixth since 2001, features the full symphony orchestra, the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus and some very gifted (and, judging by the photos we found on the Web, far from obese) singers who have spent decades training to reach some of those notes. Yes, it is in Italian, just the way Gioacchino Rossini wrote it nearly 200 years ago, but there will be supertitles so patrons can read along with the story."

The basic problem here is simple: Know your audience. This writer does not. He has in mind, no doubt, the mythical "general reader" whose interests are that of an eighth-grader and who must be talked to as such.

People who go to the opera, however, know who Rossini is. They know he wrote in Italian. They know about supertitles. They know the cliche about the fat ladies singing in the opera is just a cliche. And because they know all this already, the writing doesn't come off as funny; it comes off as condescending.

Such pandering insults interested readers, alienates potentially interested readers and makes classical music appear all the more elitist to those who already think so. It makes opera seem as simple to understand as any old TV show, as if to say even an idiot can enjoy it, with the implication that the reader is an idiot.

Posted by John Stoehr at February 26, 2007 1:01 AM

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COMMENTS

As the blogger's wife, and a professional musician, I am glad to see an example of how uninformed journalists and the declining classical music scene are stuck in a feedback loop. The question is, what can we do about it?

Posted by: Gretchen Frazier at February 26, 2007 8:09 AM