Slipped disc: July 2008 Archives
Coming up on Monday night on BBC Radio 3:
Monday 21 July 2008 21:45-22:30 (Radio 3)
Norman Lebrecht in conversation with French soprano Natalie Dessay, whose performances in bel canto roles have won her awards and brought her international acclaim. However, her career was threatened seven years ago, when she developed a problem with her vocal cords that required surgery.
In a revealing interview, she speaks candidly to Norman Lebrecht about that experience, about her need to be on stage to escape real life, explaining why she's happiest when rehearsing, her desire to revolutionise the operatic world and her conversion to the Jewish faith.
A friend in Charlotte, North Carolina, reports that their newspaper, the Observer, has shed two critics, music and movies. With the Los Angeles Times heaving bodies overboard and the Wall Street Journal on the verge of a cull, it looks like open season on the endangered critical species across the US print media.
And while I have no idea what Robert Thomson has in mind for Rupert Murdoch's WSJ, his editorship at the Times in London showed no understanding or personal sympathy for arts. If an editor doesn;t care about arts, the cost-cutters see a green light.
A surviving Charlotte staffer, Lawrence Toppman, says his paper will rely on 'wire-service reviews for movies', which is better than nothing - but not much. If a city paper cannot address events within its boundaries from a local angle, why should local people bother to read it?
What earthly point is there is agreeing or disagreeing with the artistic sensibility of an agency desk jockey who lives in another state, and maybe in another country? Newspapers that lose their resident critical faculty are effectively signing their own death certificate.
When the prolific Alan Brien died last month at the age of 83, it was reported that he was the first writer to be hired at the creation of the Sunday Telegraph, the editor taking the judicious view that once he had a theatre critic in place all else would sort itself out. And so it did.
Critics give a newspaper character. Sack 'em and you might as well publish press releases.
Last night, I went to see Kurt Weill's Street Scene at the Young Vic, its first UK staging in 20 years which drew chief theatre critics from almost every national daily.
This morning, I addressed a dozen students, year 10-11, at corporate HQ on the prospects for arts careers in the media. Which would you think was the more excitable audience?
The students were terrific, sharp as buttons and receptive to early-morning stimulation (they laughed at my jokes). They were also media savvy, fully informed about the impact of internet usage on the print and record industries. They were not going to be fobbed off with bromides. What they wanted to hear was a range of fresh solutions to a familiar crisis. I did my best to give them hope.
The critics were in Thursday-night mood, worn out after too many late nights filing reviews for the last editions. But by the interval, the ones I chatted to were hopping and popping with the impact of the work. And by the end they (and I) were on a Weill high, totally blown away by the sensational mutations of 'Lonely House' leitmotiv with which the composer drives the piece.
Someone said this sort of excitement reminded him why he became a critic in the first place. I was struck more by the vital social function that performing arts critics perform, wading night after night through dullness and mire in the hope that something will light their fire, as Weill did ours last night.
That is why newspapers need critics - to protect readers from the routinely awful and the meretricious rubbish that masquerades as novelty, and to excite them with the blood-rush of the real thing. This is also why people read newspapers - to find a voice they can trust to lead them through the barren wilderness to a kind of promised land. Kurt Weill knew that, even as old man Kaplan ranted about 'the capitalist press'.
Every newspaper that sheds its critics, as so many are doing, loses a powerful reader magnet.
There are two reasons why newspapers are getting rid of established critics. The obvious one is that newspaper revenues are caught in a double arm-lock by the internet and the credit crunch, neither of which is likely to ease in the forseeable future.
Less obvious is the internal perception, right or wrong, that certain forms of commentary and opinion forming are no longer central to what editors want and readers expect. As a sometime editorial executive, I have been party to some these discussions and that leaves me more than a little puzzled at the hysteria aroused by the recent layoffs. Nobody likes to see job losses but newspapers are a dynamic industry, quick to adapt to changes in public demand.
Take the role of television critic. Ten years ago, it was a high-profile spot in most papers, the generator of many water-cooler moments in the workplace. But television is not what it was. With hundreds of channels, there is not much likelihood that four people around the cooler will have watched the same programme the night before and, if they did, that they will want to read intelligent comment in the morning about dumb reality shows and talent contests.
If television is a mindless thing on the wall, why bother to write about it? Newspapers that have abolished TV reviews suffered no backlash from readers. The function had become redundant, except in the case of a few doyens - Nancy Banks-Smith in the Guardian, for instance - who developed a voice over many years that loyal readers would miss.
Radio criticism is a different matter. Radio has a distinct community, or set of communities. It is listened to by long-distance drivers, nursing mothers, menial workers and the elderly, among others. Many of them listent intently since, on a great many stations, content has been upheld at high level.
Radio columnists such as Gillian Reynolds in the Daily Telegraph provide a stimulating collage of inside information, listener guidance and incisive artistic criticism that serves, in turn, to keep producers on their toes and maintain original output. A loss of the radio signal would provoke outrage among the readership.
Neither of these forms of criticism has a direct bearing on arts reviews, which is where many of the cuts have lately been falling. It is, of course, impossible to generalise about critics. There are good arts critics and bad, as well as once-good critics who run out of things to say or hate everything in sight. But what is happening at the moment is that the axe is falling indiscriminately on critics good and bad - Lawrence Johnson in Miami is one of the best - and the tendency is growing in newspapers to regard arts criticism as peripheral to their purpose.
That would be both a disaster for newspapers and a danger to a free society, matters which I will attempt to reflect upon in a future comment. Your responses are, as ever, essential to the process.
The Observer, a British Sunday newspaper, set up one of those self-fullling propositions today by asking: Critic vs Blog - is the art of criticism under threat from the web?
The article that explores these tensions is, so far as I can judge, fair, balanced and, insofar as it quotes my views, pretty accurate and to the point.
What skews it are the photographs which show the critics to be bursting with middle-age, while the bloggers portrayed are uniformly young, hip and street-wise.
The pictures, I can reveal, were posed. The critics were specifically asked to dress up in suits, while the bloggers are seen in gear that is generically casual. The meaning conveyed is simple. Critics = old and square, bloggers = young and cool.
That 's the sort of thing that gives journalism a bad name, the more so when it is palpably untrue, as it is here. Many of the bloggers I come across on-line are of pensionable age and crusty disposition. Many of the critics I meet in pursuit of my trade are young, unwaged and astonishingly open-eared and minded.
Nor are the two worlds mutually exclusive. Most arts bloggers get their juices flowing by what they read in newspapers, print or on-line. More and more professional critics are alert to what airs on-line and, from time to time, assimilate and respond to it.
There are no hard and fast borders. Some bloggers strive for an impartiality worthy of the New York Times at its dullest. Some critics make polemic their passion, the rage at bad art increasing with the passing of years. That makes essential reading.
Some - I am not alone in this - inhabit both sides of the tracks. We write in newspapers for a living and feed a blog like this one with material we either can't or don't want to put in print - stuff that, in our judgement, has its most appropriate place out here, sparking instant responses and cutting more quickly than a newspaper page can with its cumbersome furniture and - in the Observer article - occasionally distorted view of the world.
One of the first laws of journalism is never make the facts fit the story. In the Observer, the story looks as if it has been commissioned to fit a fake picture.
A statement by Peter Gelb to the Economist has set alarm bells ringing.
At his former job, as head of Sony Classical, Gelb used to deliver hour-long harangues about how his genius would rescue the label and the recording industry as a whole. By the time he quit, Sony was a shambles and the industry near-dead. For the detail, see here.
Now read Gelb in The Economist: 'When I took over, the Met was on a declining slope toward extermination...' He does not finish the sentence, but the implication is that golden man has once more revived a dying goose.
This is pure fantasy. The Met, with an endowment running into hundreds of millions of dollars, was never at death's door, let alone an emotive threat of 'extermination'. It just needed a blast of fresh air after a decade of stagnation.
What Gelb has done - introducing new repertoire, new directors, opera at the movies and in the open air - has been highly effective and long overdue, but no more than the start of what needs to be a coherent strategy to make opera meaningful to a wider American public. Let's hope the strategy is in place, because without it Gelb's reforms will soon go stale and in a couple of years the Met will be right back in the state he found it.
I, for one, very much hope that there is depth and breadth to the Gelb plan because I like to see success in the arts more than I enjoy criticising failure. But this latest boast, echoing the hollow claims of his Sony years, has me worried.
Hubris is a sign that a leader has peaked. What follows is nemesis. Peter Gelb needs to take care that he does not let himself believe a myth of his own making.
The newest recruit to the Overture Protection Club (see here) is Valerio Tura, former artistic director of La Monnaie in Brussels, a man who knows what's what in an opera house.
We now have a quorum at OPC headquarters and are starting to roll. Maestros and producers who abuse the humble overture had better watch out.
This could be as big as the Early Music Revolution - before it went the way of all revolutions and settled for a desk job-with-dacha, a dictatorship of the professariat.
New OPC members can sign in under Comments (below).
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Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog