How to write an opera review for a Toronto newspaper

The following quick guide to how to write an opera review for one of Toronto’s (inexplicably) prestigious newspapers is based on extensive analysis of the same.  Given that those papers seem hell bent on sacking anybody with actual knowledge of the arts it is felt that such a guide might prove useful to, say, the Gardening Correspondent, when he or she finds that they have been assigned to cover an opera.

  1. Tell your audience how the piece should have been performed.  This can be based on your memory of a student production in Hamilton thirty years ago or, failing that, borrow a DVD of a twenty year old Met production from the library.  It’s about all they have in the opera section anyway.  Remember you are the expert.
  2. Detail how this production differs from what it ought to have been.  This is easier than engaging with the actual production and reinforces your expertness.
  3. Make a joke about the director being European or his brother being European or his brother having once worked in Europe.  Europeans are weird and notorious for thinking.  Clearly this has no place in the Toronto arts scene.  Your readers will see this as proof of your common sense and lack of pretension.
  4. Check to see if any of the singers have ever sung at the Metropolitan Opera.  If so mention this often.  It’s much easier than analyzing their actual performance and your readers know that if it’s good enough for New York it’s good enough for Toronto.
  5. Ditto if any of the singers are on the official list of “singers beloved in Toronto”.  Never mind if they are over the hill or have bubonic plague, any criticism of them will be resented and will provoke angry letters to the editor from people who weren’t even there.
  6. If the opera in question was written in the last fifty years insert a snidey comment about the lack of Canadian works on the COC stage.  Do not suggest that your paper or its proprietor would be willing to underwrite such a venture.
  7. Mention that the audience applauded rather than booed as they would no doubt have done in Munich and Milan.  Your readers will think you are praising the legendary politeness of Torontonians.  This allows you to be condescending without actually getting sacked.

14 thoughts on “How to write an opera review for a Toronto newspaper

    • If there any Shaws or Cardusses (Cardi?) out there anymore they are not working for Toronto papers. To be fair, there are a couple of critics in Toronto who aren’t hopeless but mostly it’s pretty grim.

  1. Brilliant stuff, John. But Europe, at least Vienna, is not is so enlightened:

    1. Die Presse’s stock-in-trade Regie false dichotomy: “It was wonderful to see traditional yeomen’s costumes for once, because when it’s a choice between this and Waffen SS stormtroopers I know which one I’d prefer.”
    2. Pervy appreciation of the “offene Dekolleté”: ‘So delightful to see X on such coquettish form’.
    3. The frankly-worst-than-most disclaimer: ‘What imbeciles! It is, naturally, only in Vienna that one bothers to give of one’s best.’

    Actually all of those are Die Presse, not that the other papers are much better.

  2. Thank you for writing this, you have made many valuable and accurate points. I expect to see a rebuttal regarding the destruction of the highly studied art of criticism caused by opera lovers and bloggers either as a comment or as a post on a critic’s personal blog. It’s the opera lovers versus the opera learned. Who will ultimately win this war?

    • It’s the opera lovers versus the opera learned.

      I don’t think it is. If opera reviews were all being written by people who actually knew what they are talking about I could never have written what I did, even tongue in cheek. The “opera learned” (and that doesn’t include me!) are writing in their blogs because the big papers have fired them and decided it’s OK for the theatre critic or the gardening correspondent to cover opera.

  3. Absolutely spot on. It’s so true it’s not even funny — it goes beyond funny and right to sad and somewhat depressing.

  4. This all needed to be said – many thanks. I think your point about these so-called critics not being willing to engage in a real analysis of the staging, or the singing is the saddest thing of all. It’s so obvious, but to criticize a staging just because it doesn’t meet your idea of what a production should be, but to literally have nothing intelligent or constructive to say about it…that’s the height of arrogance and just plain ignorance!

  5. It’s a pity none of you has the guts or perseverance to give specific examples from actual reviews. But of course it’s so much easier to write in generalities, under cover of assumed names.

    • OK I’ll bite:

      Kaptainis’ review of the COC Florentine double bill – nit picking on shifting period to a ridiculous degree.

      Ouzounian’s (sp?) review of Alden’s Rigoletto – “let me tell you what the story is really about”.

      FWIW I thought your review of Semele was one of the better pieces to appear in major print this year.

      • Thanks, but you won’t make your case by citing an exception right off the top. 🙂

        I may share your doubts about some TO critics and some reviews, but since you have a low opinion generally of those now working, I would be curious to know: Who in town would do a better job?

      • Actually I think you and Colin do a pretty good job. The other three Toronto dailies I find much worse. I do think there are often more perceptive reviewers in the blogosphere. Lydia Perec and Lesley Barcza for instance are very good. John Terauds was/is good and it was his removal plus AK’s “disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” approach to anything other than the most traditional and literal directorial approaches that ‘inspired’ the original post. I’m sure That I don’t really need to point out that it wasn’t entirely serious anymore than any other satirical piece. I was actually quite surprised by how much it seemed to resonate.

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