Why do opera fans read opera reviews, and also importantly, why should they? And what is the proper role of the opera critic? Keep in mind here that I am speaking as an opera fan. Critics, performers, and musicologists may have different perspectives. First, opera scheduling is different from art forms like movies, plays, and books. I typically read reviews as an aid to deciding whether I want to see a movie or a performance, or even read the book. However, operas have short runs and waiting for the reviews can greatly decrease my chances of getting a good seat or a seat at all. Movies and books continue to be available for many years and so the reviews and their relevance live on with them. More often I read reviews after having seen the opera performance, or at least after having bought my ticket. So what is the point of reading the reviews? I like to compare my reaction and opinion of the performance to those of an expert. I can then judge the merit of the critic by how closely they align with my opinion (tongue mostly in cheek here). More seriously, I learn more about opera by reading the reviews of knowledgeable critics. I get interesting insights about what I saw and heard, or will, and have my attention drawn to some aspects that may have flown right by me, and have this performance placed in the context of current opera and its historical background.
I distinctly remember a colleague of mine at work criticizing a review by Ann Midgette of La Boheme performed at the Kennedy Center. My colleague had thoroughly enjoyed the performance and felt that Ms. Midgette, opera critic of the Washington Post, was being too harsh in her review, because presumably as a critic it was her job to criticize. I already had my ticket, but was able to read the review before attending the performance. After attending, I thought the opera failed to generate the chemistry and camaraderie among the young performers needed for La Boheme to succeed and was somewhat lackluster. However, even I thought Ms. Midgette was heavy handed in evaluating Corinne Winters who played Mimi. It is discomforting to have something or someone you like disparaged, even by experts. It is easy to ascribe ulterior motives for their criticisms. However, I have to admit that Ann Midgette is competent to knowledgeably evaluate Ms. Winters voice and I am not. I may hang on to my opinion, but I will listen with more awareness next time.
This brings me to what is the role of the critic, especially the opera critic? Certainly, critics should give a knowledgeable evaluation of what was good and bad about a performance for entertainment value. However, I am going to assert that the key role for critics is to maintain standards. A critic needs to know what they are talking about and tell those of us who are not experts what was great or lacking about a performance, and they should send messages to the performers and managers on how well they did. Take a look at the Opera Info – Critics page for some comments on the backgrounds of opera reviewers, including Ms. Midgette; I hope to expand this as we go along; it’s fair to look at the training and experience that critics have in fields relevant to the subject being reviewed. The average person will like anything that features a cat for example, but cats don’t necessarily make great anything (ok, except pets for some people). Box office receipts determine economic success and viability, but do not reliably ensure quality and can even lead fields to degenerate, following success for success’s sake. We need critics to demand that all the participants in bringing opera to us adhere to the highest standards. I know what I like, but critics know whether standards are being met. We get better, higher quality, more satisfying operas and performers, and the field is led to grow and evolve in healthy, promising new directions. So, read the reviews, even say or write nasty comments to the critics, but read them. I’d love to hear your thoughts.