Talk to me about ‘Opera News’

Driscoll,-F.Paul.jpgAs often as possible, on Fridays I will post interviews with colleagues from the field who are far more knowledgeable than I am on various marketing and publicity topics. This week, we have F. Paul Driscoll, Editor-in-Chief of Opera News, on bewitching divas, the good, the bad, and the ugly of opera blogging, and the basics of how to pitch a glossy magazine.

F. Paul Driscoll has been Editor in Chief of OPERA NEWS since 2003.  He began contributing to the magazine in 1990 and joined the editorial staff as managing editor in 1998.  He was born in New York City and raised in Westchester.  His first live opera experience was Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera in 1969, with Renata Tebaldi, Cornell MacNeil and Sandor Konya.
Photo:© Kate Weiman

The current issue of Opera News is the eighth annual DIVA issue. Can you tell us your three best diva/divo stories, or do you not feature-and-tell?

I’ll give you one diva story, which happened at my first diva encounter, about twenty-five years ago.  I was asked to interview Leontyne Price, who had been one of my idols since I was in high school.  We met at the appointed hour, she looked fabulous, I turned on the cassette recorder and … nothing.  I couldn’t think of a single question.  There was complete silence in the room, except for the little scritch, scritch, scritch sound of the cassette preserving dead air for posterity.  She smiled graciously.  I was still blank.  She raised her eyebrows.  I cleared my throat  —  very loudly  —  and said, “Uh … Miss Price … this is … this is one of the greatest moments of my life … uh, really.”  Very smooth, right?  I wanted to die.  But I hadn’t counted on the fact that Miss Price had probably encountered an idiot interviewer at least once or twice before.  She crossed her legs, leaned forward, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Mr. Driscoll, I do not know who has coached you to say such bewitching things, but you do it divinely.  Prrrrrrrrrrray continue!”  In other words, she put me completely at my ease by treating me like a professional  —   a real act of faith in her part on that particular morning —  and we had a great interview, thanks to her.  She’s a very classy, generous lady  —  which most real divas are, in my experience.

What is the staff responsibility breakdown at Opera News and how has it changed since you’ve been there?

We have an editorial staff of eight, including our art director and our editorial production director.  Features are assigned by Brian Kellow, our features editor; each of the other editors  —  senior editor Louise Guinther, online editor Adam Wasserman, managing editor Oussama Zahr, assistant editor Tristan Kraft  — has assigning or editing responsibility for at least one of the back-of-the book-departments.  

The biggest change at OPERA NEWS within the last decade has been the movement of more work in-house — not only by-lined features and departments, but a great deal of pre-press and production work that used to be out-sourced is done here in the offices of OPERA NEWS by Greg Downer, our art director, and Elizabeth Diggans, our editorial production director.  We also have our website,, to supply with content and maintain.  In other words, the workload has increased, but the size of the staff has not.

Do you ever use freelancers who don’t specialize in opera/classical music? That is, a medical journalist or a fashion writer?

On occasion, we do use freelancers whose expertise is in area outside of classical music:  in our August 2009 issue, for example, we worked with Colleen Hill, a fashion historian, on a piece about how designers have tackled the challenges of costuming Violetta in La Traviata. That said, our readers expect us to speak on opera and classical music subjects with authority; therefore, most of the freelancers we engage are highly knowledgeable in those areas.  Relatively few are what I would call “specialists,” however.  As you can tell from the author bios that accompany our features, we use writers who also work as architects, translators, performers and academics.

So…a glossy, printed magazine…about opera…in 2009. You knew the question was coming: how long before you go online-only, if ever, and do you think being web-only entity will alienate your current subscribers?

We currently have no plans to go online-only.  We are now in the process of re-designing; we are scheduled to go live with the re-design in January 2010. is a great way to expand what we are able to offer our readers — not only in terms of content, but in terms of flexibility.  But it’s our intention to maintain the integrity of the printed publication.

How does the website promote the printed magazine and vice versa? Which is the bigger traffic driver to the other?

Right now, the cross-traffic flows from print to online, generally for content reasons.  We have online-only features — audio surveys, for example — that are promoted in the print edition, as well as interviews and performance, recording and video reviews that are online-only.

Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, was the cover of Wired magazine last month. The tagline reads, “Killers. Hookers. The death of newspapers. Craig Newmark gets a lot of blame.”  How has the popularity of opera bloggers changed opera journalism for better or worse? In August, the magazine published an 1800-word piece called, “Voice of Opposition” about blogger La Cieca/James Jorden. In the “Opera Navigator” section on the New York Times’ website, the blog Opera Chic and Opera News are given equal treatment. Is the sky falling? What does all this mean??

I don’t believe that bloggers have changed the face of journalism  —  opera or otherwise  —  as much as the shifting economics of the print media business model.  The costs of putting content on paper are high; traditionally, the revenue streams that supported those costs came from advertising dollars and from subscription and newsstand sales.  The formulas for monetizing online content are relatively new: it’s anyone’s guess as to how this process will evolve.  Opera blogs have made the discussion of opera more lively, to be sure:  the best bloggers are highly opinionated writers.  But there’s a big step between having an opinion and being able to write criticism — or deliver a well-reported, responsibly researched piece of journalism.  Not all opera blogs are created equal; some —  such as Opera Chic  —  are very well-written; some are not.  The “Opera Navigator” section on the NEW YORK TIMES website presents links to a number of different information sources about opera, which is a smart way for the TIMES to appeal to its broad readership base.

Do singers’ blogs and Twitter feeds have journalistic value? Do you consider them competition for readers or useful tools to shed new light on the art form?

Singers’s blogs and Twitter feeds offer a different perspective
on the art form than journalism does.  Those blogs and Tweets are highly subjective, naturally.  I don’t consider them competition for magazine readers.  But then again, I don’t think most opera singers would consider me competition if I started to sing.

Most of the pieces in the print version of Opera News are 1500+ words. Do you find that holds appeal for freelance writers and readers alike or, in these ADD times, is everyone just looking for quick and short blurbs of information?

Our readers  —  and our writers  —  seem happier with longer pieces, but we try to vary the length of features; not every subject merits 2, 000 words.  The features in the course of the last six months of OPERA NEWS have ranged in length from 650 words to 3, 500 words.  Quick hits of information are great as Breaking News items on or as entries in Opera Watch, but I believe our readers enjoy pieces that can examine an issue or a personality in some depth.

Often it’s hard for me, as a publicist, to know in advance what effect press hits are going to have on my artists’ careers; does NPR sell CDs or simply raise an artist’s profile, does a good New York Times review matter, does a bad New York Times review matter? Each issue of Opera News always has a great balance of rising and established stars. How do you think coverage in the magazine can affect a singer’s career at different points in the career?

My observation is that coverage in OPERA NEWS can help to get an artist attention, but it is the sustained quality of an artist’s work that has the biggest effect on an artist’s career.  It’s our responsibility as editors to give our readers the right amount of information about an artist at the right time. For example, the “Sound Bites” section of the magazine has been proven to be a highly effective way to give artists who weren’t ready for a major OPERA NEWS feature an appearance within our pages:  Anna Netrebko, Natalie Dessay, Joyce DiDonato, Elina Garanca, René Pape, John Relyea, Jonas Kaufmann, Lawrence Brownlee and Philippe Jordan were all “Sound Bites” subjects before they became front-rank opera-house stars.  
What is the most effective way for publicists to secure a story or a profile in Opera News?

The most effective way for any publicist to secure a story or profile in ANY magazine is to present a pitch that reflects a working knowledge of the magazine.  That starts with the magazine’s readership.  Who are they?  Why do they buy the magazine? Clearly, our readers buy a magazine called OPERA NEWS expecting its editors to present opera as topic one, but that doesn’t mean that every “opera story” is right for us.  For example, most publicists don’t realize is that our coverage of opera is national or that our readership is national.  (Did you know that more than ten percent of our subscribers live in California?)  You’d be surprised at the number of pitches we get that are clearly “local news,” better suited to a local newspaper than a national magazine.  (A world premiere at the Met or Lyric Opera of Chicago or Santa Fe Opera stands a pretty fair chance of being national news; a new production of a standard repertory work at a small local company, however worthy, is not.)  An effective pitch also takes into account our publication schedule: we are a monthly magazine, and work far in advance.  You’d be surprised at the number of pitches we get touting an event that’s happening in ten days.  And  —  last but not least  —  it helps a pitch if the publicist has read at least one issue of the magazine and can identify just where in OPERA NEWS a potential story might fit best.  Not every story is a cover story.

What does the “F” in F. Paul stand for? If you answer “F You”, you’ll be my hero.

Today, it stands for Fractious.  Most days it stands for Francis.

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  1. Cee says

    A sparkling interview from a man of great intelligence and intuition. He’s got a lot of voices to satisfy running that magazine – from the subscribers to opera house directors to the journalists to the publicists – and I applaud him for juggling it all so seamlessly.
    I loved the Leontyne Price anecdote. I’m more convinced the “F” in “F. Paul” stands for “Fabulous”!