A firestorm has erupted in the opera world over what has been called "censorship" by the Metropolitan Opera House of the magazine Opera News. It is complicated; Opera News is published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, itself a body founded to raise money for the Met, but Opera News has become something of a major organ in the industry and thus, probably rightly, "sees" itself as an independent publication. Trouble was bound to erupt when the mag started writing scathing reviews of the Met's own productions and even worse, started to say unkind things about the boss, Peter Gelb.
We have something of a parallel at OHP. We publish a magazine ("Scenario") for Friends that goes to around 3,000 people and in the UK market that makes it one of the best read opera magazines out there. It covers opera in general but, like Opera News, focuses on what we as a company do. But it is overwhelmingly about OHP. One of our longer term plans was to consider featuring reviews of productions around the country, CD reviews and to offer listings for the opera and classical music industry. It may even branch out to become a more general media vehicle for the industry. None of this is settled but is up there on the ideas board. So the news this morning made me wonder what might happen if those plans came to fruition and people started giving our productions a kicking in our own publication? As our own Friends' magazine, Scenario should also seek to report and address matters that concern the members who are, after all, our customers. We have looked at having articles from patrons who wish to discuss a particular issue about their experience of the theatre, their services etc. Is it a huge step to think that we should allow them to say what they thought of a production? Probably not but mainly because the only readers are other Friends who may agree or disagree. And we retain editorial control!
Because Opera News is so widely read as an "opera magazine" as opposed to the Met's in house publication, it is understandable with the distance of time and history for people to forget what it was set up for. And it is therefore understandable that they would cry foul as Gelb told them to take a running jump when it came to reviewing Met productions. Censorship or anything that smacks of it gets people very agitated.
Opera News, however is a much wider readership and is regarded as an industry publication by many. I have some sympathy with Gelb when he thinks that it is hard enough pleasing national critics who can have a significant impact on the work of a house without having to worry about his own "in-house" mag sticking the knife in. The reaction to the decision has been universally against him though and he might have taken a slightly less dramatic course of action. It isn't great PR obviously. Gelb and the Guild's decision is likely to be hotly debated by opera goers and critics alike and the discussions are likely to exclude the reality of the link between the three institutions that has precipitated the ban. Gelb has just attempted to recalibrate the public perception and is saying "there are plenty other publications that offer criticism of the Met, so read those". I get that but such a readjustment after so long and after the magazine has so firmly established itself is not going to prove simple. But I have to offer a sneaking admiration for his balls to try it.
Opera criticism can be among the most vituperative of all branches of the profession and opera managers can get quite dramatic in their response to it. As a "smaller" house, we tend to be judged moderately fairly and in context but major national houses have some serious firepower aimed at them. Our response to bad reviews is generally an internal one; it is rare for James or I to take a reviewer to task unless they have printed something that is incorrect or obviously written with an agenda in mind. I banned a reviewer last year for just such a blatant expression of partisanship (I consider us a pretty benign institution when all is said and done so there is no need to say a great deal beyond what you think of the work). However, many critics will tell you that we are a most forgiving and understanding bunch and whilst it might appear that we are hovering about you menacingly, we are just as likely to agree when a production hasn't quite worked out as we hoped. David Nice gave our production of Francesca da Rimini a fearful pounding on the Arts Desk website two seasons ago but people queued up in the comments section to tell him he was talking bollocks. I queued up as well. But leapt to his defence (whilst agreeing with other correspondents that he was talking bollocks of course) saying that David was only offering his opinion of the piece and not sticking the knife into the company and everything we stood for. We don't have a problem with that.
Would we feel the same if our Friends started doing the same? Good luck Mr Gelb, you are going to need it.
***And as we speak, the Met has changed its mind and Opera News will continue to review their performances! Nicely?