Knights of the Opera Table 2019: How’d My Favorite Opera Critics Do?

Public domain knight illustration by Paul Mercuri: .

Public domain knight illustration by Paul Mercuri:

I wrote a blog report a year ago on professional opera critics whose beats are in the mid-Atlantic, in which I proclaimed my appreciation for the work they do as journalists and as knowledgeable arbiters of the good.  I deemed them Knights of the Opera Table who champion the shining examples of opera productions and slay the weak ones.  But I also claimed that some reviews and reviewers are better than others, so the reviewers deserve some scrutiny themselves.  So, how did the critics in the mid-Atlantic do this past year?  Well, here is my quasi-scholarly review, or as with all of my blog reports, one fan’s opinion.

What do I expect of professional critics?  First of all, I expect that a critic will be knowledgeable and experienced in their area of coverage and use that expertise to provide insights and relevant information about performances and performers.  Unfortunately, information about the backgrounds of critics is often difficult to find; see my Critics web page for information I culled together on backgrounds of some of the critics.  Second, I expect a critic to be a good journalist, providing an informative and balanced report on what happened at a performance.  Lastly, I expect them to be objective and critical in reporting on what measured up to or exceeded professional standards and what did not.  I always read reviews either before or after I see a performance to compare my views with an experienced professional critic. I learn more about opera that way and, I believe, enhance my enjoyment of opera that way. 

I should mention that I live in the DC area and tend to read more reports by DC critics because I see more operas in this area and have the Washington Post delivered each morning.  However, I make pilgrimages to Philly and Pittsburgh (and NYC) at least once a year, and I check for reviews of all operas in those areas.

Let’s begin at the top.  My favorite Knight in the mid-Atlantic realm continues to be the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette.  She had an exceptional year in terms of both productivity and quality of her reviews and features.  Her reviews are timely; she frequently writes what she calls “insta-reviews” that she posts online the morning after a performance - I stand in awe.  If you want to read an article that sparkles in terms of presentation, composition, and content, read her piece on composer Philip Glass.  She makes helping her audience better understand classical music a priority; read her recent piece on the best way to understand a Beethoven concerto. She also takes on social issues in opera and classical music, especially championing women performers, conductors, and composers.  A series of articles (beginning with this one) with her colleague Peggy McGlone on sexual misconduct in the classical music community have had significant impact.    I don’t always agree with her assessments; for example, I thought her view of Silent Night seemed a little jaded, but maybe mine was a little too naive.  If there is a better classical music and opera critic anywhere, please point her out to me.

The DC area continues to be informed by reviews from Charles Downey who writes for Classical Review. Mr. Downey’s review is usually the first one I read because he is usually the first to post online; virtually all of his reviews are insta-reviews.  To write such concise, knowledgeable, balanced, and insightful critical reviews that quickly is impressive, and I always learn something by reading his reviews.  His reviews also sometimes help provide balance to Ms. Midgette’s; for example, compare his review of WNO’s La Traviata with Ms. Midgette’s.  I was more in his camp than hers.

Continuing with critics in the DC area, I will also mention Susan Galbraith, Philip Kennicott, and newcomer, at least to my attention, Patrick Rucker.  Ms. Galbraith, who I only recently added to the Opera Table, writes longer, more detailed reviews, perhaps less critical, but an excellent place to add to your opera knowledge.  She also reviews theater and musical theater for DC Theatre Scene. 

What to do about the Post’s Mr. Kennicott?  He is a Pulitzer Prize winner and my favorite writer among journalists, though his beat is actually art and architecture.  His work in those areas displays an acute sense of the human and societal undercurrents influencing art and being influenced by art; I found his review of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice to be especially powerful.  His lone opera review this past season was a rather dark critique of Washington National Opera’s Don Carlos.  Given the infrequency of his opera reviews and features this past year, I have decided to institute a reserve corps and move Mr. Kennicott to the Knights of the Opera Table Reserves.  In fairness, he spent much of the past year writing a book titled “The Goldberg Variations: A Memoir”.   The publisher notes that the book investigates “the nature of learning and mastery, and how they might help us during times of grieving and loss”; his particular loss was his mother’s death.  The book is due out this winter.   

Patrick Rucker, a classical music critic for the Washington Post, drew my attention this year with a strong, incisive writing style.  I’m not awarding him opera knighthood yet, with his limited forays into opera battles, but he is one to watch.  I hope he reviews more operas.  Oddly, he doesn’t have a Washington Post web page I can refer you to, but you can look up his reviews on the Post website.   

Let’s move up I-95 to Philly and consider the lone resident Knight in that area, Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer.  His review of “Glass Handel” made me regret again I waited too late to buy tickets and it was sold out. He split reviewing the other performances in Opera Philadelphia’s O18 Festival with his former colleague and former mid-Atlantic Knight, David Patrick Stearns, who relocated to NYC, but returned to contribute free lance reviews of a couple of O18 Festival performances for his former employer, the Philadelphia Enquirer.  I enjoyed his review of Sky on Swings, but the one on Lucia di Lammermoor seemed to me to be overly critical, though I enjoyed reading the review nonetheless.

Let’s head out the Pennsylvania Turnpike to see who’s been writing criticism in Pittsburgh.  Well, there is a new sheriff in town.  Jeremy Reynolds joined the Pittsburg Gazette as chief classical music and opera critic.  I found his review of Madama Butterfly to be rather lyrical, while his review of Idomeneo afterWARds was a straightforward critique.  These are good reviews whose merits rest mainly on the reporting and criticisms they offer.  His craft is still developing, and my hope for his future reviews is that he will help forge the connection of his readers to opera and classical music by sharing more of his knowledge and insights about opera and classical music in addition to his reporting and criticism; I also extend this plea to all the critics.  Regardless, welcome to the Opera Table, Mr. Reynolds. Critic Robert Croan, who is retired from the Gazette, made a return visit to provide an excellent review of Pittsburgh Opera’s Hansel and Gretel.   

What to do about the city of Baltimore?  Baltimore, a major mid-Atlantic city, continues without a fully-staged opera company and has also now lost its primary classical music and opera critic.  They had an excellent one in Tim Smith, but he retired from the Baltimore Sun this past year.  As of this writing, the Sun is advertising for a free-lance writer to cover classical music for them, not a permanent staff member.  It seems unlikely there will be a Knight patroling the Baltimore area anytime soon, and for sure, not one who is permanently employed.

Two additional opera critics have drawn my attention for consistently providing quality reviews in their locales, George Parous in Pittsburgh who writes for Pittsburgh In The Round and Cameron Kelsall in Philadelphia who writes for the Broad Street Review.   Perhaps they will merit knighthood in the future.

In closing, let me add that most of the critics have a presence on social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) where they advertise their articiles and pass along other relevant and timely info and comments. I have found it remarkable that even the best known critics get few, if any, comments online to their newspaper articles, and I have also noticed that they often do get comments on social media. If there is any chatter about a performance, that is where you are most likely to find it.

There you have it for the 2019 edition of the Knights of the Opera Table.  Those are my favorites.  How about you? Support your local Knight!