High drama at the Metropolitan Opera

The power of the internet to effect change was amply demonstrated yesterday after the Metropolitan Opera in New York reversed a decision that would have affected the freedom of the magazine Opera News to write about the opera house impartially with the following statement:

In view of the outpouring of reaction from opera fans about the recent decision to discontinue Met performance reviews in Opera News, the Met has decided to reverse this new editorial policy. From their postings on the internet, it is abundantly clear that opera fans would miss reading reviews about the Met in Opera News. Ultimately, the Met is here to serve the opera-loving public and has changed its decision because of the passionate response of the fans.

The Met and the Met Opera Guild, the publisher of Opera News, have been in discussions about the role of the Guild and how its programs and activities can best fulfill its mission of supporting the Metropolitan Opera. These discussions have included the role of reviews in Opera News, and whether they served that mission. While the Met believed it did not make sense for a house organ that is published by the Guild and financed by the Met to continue to review Met productions, it has become clear that the reviews generate tremendous excitement and interest and will continue to have a place in Opera News.

According to the New York Times, “Opera News… one of the leading classical music magazines in the country, said on Monday that it would stop reviewing the Metropolitan Opera, a policy prompted by the Met’s dissatisfaction over negative critiques.” Opera News is published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, though that has never stopped it from publishing negative criticisms of the Met in the past. The New York Times reported, “Gelb (the Met’s Managing Director) never liked the idea that an organisation created to support the Met had a publication passing judgement on its productions. Worse yet, a publication that ‘continuously rips into an institution that its parent is supposed to help.’”

Peter Gelb’s pressure led to a situation where F Paul Driscoll, the editor of America’s most widely read classical music publication, with a circulation of 100,000, no longer felt that his magazine was at liberty to speak openly about the Met’s productions.

This created a dangerous precedent in a country where free speech, as enshrined in the First Amendment of the US constitution, is at least intended to be sacrosanct.

Whether a critic is right or wrong, debate has always been the lifeblood of an arts world which would not exist if it did not have an audience (and critics) to feed it. And every member of that audience — some of whom may have their own blogs — will have a view of the fare on offer that may or may not square with that of the management or the creative team. An opera house that bans its critics would clearly prefer a situation where it dictates its terms unilaterally, immune from the dialogue which can be as productive as it can be dangerous but which alone will confirm and sometimes abet the success or failure of an artistic endeavour.

Edward Said, who was perhaps as knowledgable about opera as he was about the Middle East, was forever irked by the fact that his home house, the Met, was an operatic dinosaur chained by the mid-20th century European conventions it never had the courage or ambition to shake off.

Ironically, he would probably have approved of Peter Gelb, a man who has been trying to drag the house into the 21st Century, sometimes with its audiences kicking and screaming. Gelb should be applauded for this, but his tools of persuasion should be education and debate, not censorship. By taking the path he did, he was simply reinforcing the prejudices of those who already find modern operatic production just a little strange and are no doubt unsurprised to find that its supporters had to resort to such measures in order to promote it. Gelb’s behaviour was the product of insecurity, not strength, and would have been perceived as such.

Mark Glanville is a music journalist and singer