Jenna over at Schmopera recently published a piece on companies comping or refusing to comp critics with reference to recent spats at La Scala and Opera Australia. I was going to comment but on reflection I felt that I had rather more to say on the subject than was appropriate to a comment. I was also reflecting on a brief conversation I had on Sunday with a fellow blogger in which he described his relationship (briefly and in passing) with the company whose event we were attending as “parasitic”. I didn’t and don’t agree with that statement. I think there’s a symbiotic relationship between “critics” (for want of a better word) and the promoters of the product they review. Arts organisations need publicity. It’s part of what puts bums in seats. Critics need material to write about. We get comped because we do something that companies need. Not because we are special little snowflakes. Not because there’s some sort if inherent media right to free tickets. And above all not because it’s somehow to do with free speech; a term that has been abused so much in the last week that it almost makes me want to throw up. So, as far as I am concerned an opera company has an absolute right to comp or not to comp an individual or an organisation as they choose. Of course if one chooses to blacklist the Sydney Morning Herald’s main critic it’s going to have repercussions and, frankly, if I were editor of that paper, Opera Australia would be ignored. And, equally frankly, the actions of that company seem to be the sole work of a petulant GM with an oversized ego, but there you go.
So does this mean that someone writing about opera in the public sphere, especially if doing so on the company’s dime, should feel free to publish any old tosh? Personally I think not. My philosophy is that one has a duty to be informative and as objective as one can be in what is an essentially subjective activity. What does that mean in practice? For me, it means trying to transcend my personal prejudices. If I find myself feeling very negative about a performance I really try to understand why. Was it poorly executed or was it a work or production style that just doesn’t float my boat? If the latter, then how might someone with tastes different to my own have experienced it? If I can answer those questions objectively I can craft a piece that is informative and, hopefully, fair without burying my personality and feelings. And, after all, I assume people read me because they want to read me, complete with opinions and quirks, not some review bot, so some element of the personal needs to be part of the mix. (For the record, I approach the task rather differently when writing for Opera Canada). I am fully conscious that I don’t always achieve what I aspire to but the effort is there and that’s one reason why I tend to sleep on a show before starting to write.
All that said, I’d be the first to acknowledge that companies have a right to be frustrated by some of what appears in print. There are reviewers who seem mainly concerned to talk about themselves or push a particular agenda. The “traditionalist” perceiving himself to be on the moral high ground is the best example of this. If you ever read “not since Callas” or “Eorotrash” in a review you’ve found him. There are reviewers who are basically promoting their buddies and snidely trashing the rest. I’m really not sure why newspapers employ people still active in the field as reviewers. What do they expect? There are reviewers who review on reputation rather than what they see and hear. This last I find particularly reprehensible because large swathes of the audience, lacking confidence in their own judgement, lap it up. I can think of a couple of occasions in particular in the last year or two in which a great audience favourite has come out and croaked and/or wobbled their way through a piece to mostly positive reviews. I think I know why people do it. Criticising a crowd favourite is a great abuse magnet. I got called a “bitter old queen” for a negative review of a Joan Sutherland recording despite noting that she was clearly unwell when it was recorded!
The bottom line is that word “symbiosis”. Companies comp because, despite dodgy critics and unfavourable reviews, it’s in their interest. If it wasn’t they wouldn’t. There may be no business like show business but it’s still a businees!