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Critical condition

Brian Kellow mourns the disappearing art of writing about voices

In April 1983 The New Yorker’s Andrew Porter, while visiting London, reviewed the Royal Opera’s revival of Don Carlos, which had the special-interest feature of being performed in the original French. ‘The production was an important but only partial demonstration that Don Carlos sounds best in the original,’ he wrote. ‘The Bulgarian Elisabeth, Stefka Evstatieva, the Hungarian Eboli, Livia Budai, and the Basque Carlos, Peyo Garazzi, showed no very sensitive command of French. Miss Evstatieva was tolerable, and at least she has a voice of the right calibre for the role—something I’d not heard since Montserrat Caballé’s Elisabeth. Miss Budai made heavy weather of the veil song’s flamenco cadenzas; she should perhaps have chosen one of the composer’s alternatives to the piqué F-A sequences. Mr Garazzi had difficulty with his upper notes. But Thomas Allen, the Posa, was magnificent—phrasing like another De Luca, charging the part with ardour and alert, youthful nobility, never forcing his virile, beautiful voice beyond the bounds of true, pure tone. Robert Lloyd, the Philip, was grand and moving, and will be even more moving if, taking Pol Plançon or Vanni-Marcoux, not Boris Christoff, as his model, he aims at a finer, less “resonated” timbre—a line firmly drawn with the smoothest of pencils, not a powerful brush.’


There is nothing revolutionary about this review: it gives an informed, precise opinion of the vocal requirements of Verdi’s (to my mind) greatest opera, and exactly how well the singers met the challenge. When I finished re-reading Porter’s review (and the many others like it that he wrote during his long and glorious tenure at The New Yorker), I couldn’t shake off a feeling of melancholia—a passing sadness for the days when the best opera critics actually wrote in some detail about the voice. Looking over these old reviews, I had the sense that Porter and the most serious-minded of his colleagues felt compelled to deliver a kind of consumer report on each singer—a report informed by a thorough knowledge of the score and a desire to deliver historical context. Small wonder that a friend of mine described Porter’s New Yorker columns as having even greater value than a doctorate in music.

I emphasize all of this because it seems to me that today we are at a great distance from this sensibility. Have many of our most widely read opera critics lost the ability to characterize the voice in specific terms? Once the critics’ opinions of singers were anticipated with great urgency by opera aficionados; regardless of their opinions of a given critic, there was a sense that what was set down in print really mattered. But most opera lovers I know today hardly ever mention a particular critic’s review of a particular singer, and with good reason: most of their comments are wan, generalized, passive. Among present-day reviewers (a more appropriate term than ‘critics’ for most of them), the vocabulary of the voice seems to be on the verge of extinction. The weight of the top, middle and lower ranges; how a singer handles the passaggio; the use of portamento; how the attack on the notes affects intonation; the mastery of rhythm—all of these issues seem unworthy of being mentioned in most print-edition reviews. If these are the topics that our print editions are ignoring, it’s small wonder that so many people are rushing to the blogs in their quest for meaty criticism.

At Opera News, where I am features editor, we send singers’ profiles back to authors for two main reasons: a) the person being profiled has failed to come to life on the page; and b) there is virtually no description of the sound, quality and production of the singer’s voice. These journalists seem to think that they don’t have to bother with such detail. Perhaps they are reading the New York Times on a regular basis, and thinking that they don’t have to do any better than that paper’s critics. In terms of not discussing the quality of the singing, the most egregious offender on the New York Times staff has for years been Bernard Holland (who, it is reported, is soon to retire). Holland’s reviews of opera performances generally follow a set pattern: a rather hazy ‘conceptual’ opening discussion of the piece that gives you practically no information about the performance of it. At the end, Holland often ticks off the members of the cast without a single comment on their performances—which must thrill all the struggling young singers who are scrambling for quotations for their press kits.

Deborah Voigt as HelenaObviously, no critic is going to be an expert in all forms of music (though I think that Porter comes close). And The New Yorker’s current music critic, Alex Ross, is a superb writer and musical thinker, well-versed in many genres. (Ross has also demonstrated that there is a public for what he has to say: his blog is immensely popular, and his recent analysis of 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise, has sold upward of 46,000 copies in hardback.) It seems to me that the New York Times’s chief critic, Anthony Tommasini, is most deeply connected to piano and orchestral music, but I don’t think that he has a natural affinity for opera. I’m not unsympathetic to this shortcoming; I would hate to imagine the life-threatening emails I would receive if I were to start writing about ballet, a subject on which I am unforgivably ignorant. But I don’t think that keeping Tommasini on the opera beat serves the interests of readers who care about the art form. I was stunned, in March 2007, to read his review of the Met’s Die aegyptische Helena, in which he never discussed the title role’s immense vocal challenges and instead waxed poetic about Deborah Voigt’s new figure: ‘But the night, finally, was Ms Voigt’s, who commanded the stage from her first stately appearance in a simple royal purple dress and wavy auburn hair. To portray “the most beautiful woman in the world”, as everyone keeps calling Helena, must have been gratifying to someone who remembers being a chunky Illinois teenager who used to spin around her living room singing “I could have danced all night”, dreaming of a career onstage.’

I had to look twice at the byline, certain that Louella Parsons must not really be dead after all.

The decline in first-rate opera criticism didn’t come out of nowhere; if we’re looking for excuses, there’s plenty of historical context that can be referenced. Will Crutchfield, former chief critic of the New York Times, who ditched journalism for a rewarding career as a conductor and coach, feels that the decline was inevitable. ‘A basic idea of good singing used to be part of “common knowledge”,’ says Crutchfield, ‘since any kind of public singing—in church, at a political rally, or whatever—depended on familiar ideas of resonance, breath support and projection. For that matter, thousands of people in all walks of life learned these things in terms of public speaking as well. So naturally, opera audiences appreciated the finer points as keenly as sports fans today understand what’s going on in the game, and were interested to read about them from critics. But after four or five generations of everything except opera being piped through microphones, this has become rather remote from all but specialists. And so it’s hardly surprising that, among major newspaper critics writing in English, only two or three in the world are even competent when it comes to describing singing. Most of the others don’t generally try, and when they do try it’s likely to be embarrassing.’

There is more to it than that. In focusing on Voigt’s slimmer figure, Tommasini may on some level be responding to the current operatic zeitgeist, in which surface appearances and vocal impressions seem to register more strongly than dug-in musical commitment and power. At times it seems as if the ‘Colonial Williamsburg’ view—that the imitation is better than the real thing—has invaded opera casting as well. How else are we to explain the Met’s replacement of Olga Makarina, a true artist with a genuine feeling for the bel canto style, with the Brand-X soprano Elizabeth Futral in I puritani? It’s but one of countless examples. But don’t Voigt and our other leading artists deserve more serious consideration, zeitgeist or no? And there is also the point—a significant one, I think—that perhaps the singers (to say nothing of the general reader) could actually learn something from reading a review. But you have only to pick up the average regional, mid-sized city newspapers to see that editors have all but abandoned the responsibility of educating their readers—that they encourage critics to write down, not up.

Earlier this year, the New York Times lost its most eloquent critic of vocal music when Anne Midgette decamped to the Washington Post. In a desperate (and, sadly, probably futile) attempt to stay alive financially, US newspapers are offering staff writers buyouts by the dozen, and editors spend all day in meetings wondering about how they can lure the 20-somethings to the print edition. (Good luck to them on that.) Already struggling arts sections have been hard hit, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Midgette’s Post appointment might mark the last time that a major US newspaper commits to hiring a full-time classical music critic. Midgette is one of the few critics writing today who has a real understanding of how the voice works, as well as a profound love and knowledge of the operatic repertoire. (I see no reason why the fact that Midgette is a friend of mine should stand in the way of my praising her professional skills.)

While I don’t share her opinion of Natalie Dessay’s performance in the Met’s recent La Fille du régiment, Midgette’s Post review is persuasively argued: ‘As for Dessay: all of her energetic stage business detracts from her singing, which is not, to my ear, strong enough to carry an evening … On Monday she sounded hoarse for much of the evening. The very top of her voice, with its remarkable high extension, is secure, but below that she sometimes seemed on the brink of faltering, and her spoken lines were delivered in such a way as to augment the hoarseness.’ It’s that kind of tough-minded subjectivity that makes for bracing criticism. Unlike many of her colleagues, Midgette is fearless when it comes to flying in the face of popular tastes; reading some of the others, I often have the sense that they have swallowed whichever flavour of Kool-Aid the opera company’s press office happened to be ladelling out on that particular night. (This is never more important than when they are called upon to work on a breaking news story; for the most part, their reportorial skills are extremely weak.)

In particular, I think that many people writing about opera have fallen into the trap that ‘theatrical values’ trump musical ones, every time. This is the message that opera companies are transmitting, and the press is accepting it, unquestioningly. We are living in an operatic era that is much more production-oriented than voice-oriented. Many US opera critics don’t have the first clue about theatrical craft; I would guess that most of them have spent minimal time in a Broadway or off-Broadway theatre. And one of the things that they fail to comprehend is that good acting is not about crystal-clear diction and how many times you can cartwheel across the stage; it’s about the persuasive assumption of a character. If a singer can compel you to believe in the character against superficial physical odds, that’s good acting. ‘What Rossini said about opera being voice, voice and voice is no longer the case,’ observes Barrymore Laurence Scherer, author of Bravo! A Guide to Opera for the Perplexed. ‘Opera is big, big, and bigger. That’s the problem.’

As a result, critics fall in line: a production may be described in such excruciating detail that there’s no need for anyone to go to the theatre and experience it for himself—but the voices are hardly touched upon. (The German critics, in particular, tend to spew out paragraphs about every facet of the production and give the singing short shrift.) Then there is the problem, in print editions, that critics are given little space to write about anything, and if they delve too deeply into vocal matters, their editors, not understanding what they’re talking about, may cut it all out. ‘It’s hard to write about these things in the modern press,’ says Scherer, ‘because you have a readership that often doesn’t know. I am fortunate that my editor at the Wall Street Journal is well-informed and encourages me to do what I do and explain things when I’m writing about things that are no longer the lingua franca of the general reading public. The old art of singing that was a living tradition—through World War II—is no longer the same living tradition.’

Given that fact, perhaps it’s understandable that opera critics often seem so lacking in authority. Of all the pitfalls that a good critic should avoid, objectivity must be near the top of the list. (The brilliant film critic Pauline Kael had a marvellous term for it: ‘saphead objectivity’.) But many of today’s reviews seem to be bending over backward to attain some sort of objectivity; it’s as if the whole question of ‘fairness’ has been grievously misinterpreted. In a recent telephone interview, Anne Midgette remarked, ‘I think people have trouble hearing voices and trusting themselves about what they hear. More so perhaps than in other forms. There’s been a long tradition in classical music reviewing, in the last 30 years, maybe, that orchestral music and chamber music are higher and purer and opera is a kind of a subset. And there haven’t been as many critics who are real opera people, and that has only helped to ghettoize it.’ When Midgette is reviewing, she looks for ‘something happening onstage. What makes something happen is where the subjective element comes in. Does beautiful sound trump whether the person has a trill or impeccable diction? Cecilia Bartoli is an excellent example of someone who has tremendous musicality and stage presence; I find that the problems of the voice outweigh the benefits of that commitment. Ewa Podles: not everyone is going to find that big foggy hole in the middle of the voice attractive, but I find it stunning. Anna Netrebko is someone many take exception to, but I overlook a lot of the stylistic gaps because there’s a presence to the voice that I find exciting. The voice is doing something.’

Opera criticism seems to be in a much healthier condition in the UK. It’s a culture that boasts a long history of first-rate description of the voice, and some of the best practitioners—John Steane, for one—are still at it. Perhaps it has to do with the size of the country. ‘It’s a smaller public,’ says Scherer, ‘and the readership is better informed. The editors tend to be coming out of Oxford and the University of London. There’s still this really good liberal arts education to be had. If you don’t have that basic education—what we in the US have now called too genteel or outmoded—that’s at the bottom of it. If you don’t have that, you can’t even make jokes!’

I’m sure that Crutchfield is right when he says that ‘much better writing can be found on blogs, and that’s where the future of criticism probably lies’. But I hope that no one thinks that I’m being regressive when I lament the sad rotting-away of print criticism. There was a time when our best critical minds thought it was their responsibility to lead; now, too many of them seem unable to do anything but follow.

This article appeared in the October 2008 issue
Cabbells 2012 B & C
Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine