Kashu-do (歌手道): On Critics and Their Responsibility: A Response to Ann Midgette’s Cowardly Postcript

In an attempt to bring some kind of closure to the entire Critics-gate debacle, Ann Midgette of the Washington Post wrote this cowardly attempt at middle ground, which does no more than to endorse this type of base behavior under the guise of a balanced view.  To Ms. Midgette, I have the following to say:
We are not simpletons! Any performer who has ever taken the leap to expose their souls on the boards, consciously takes the risk of being panned by critics. Critics play a visceral part in furthering the art by helping to remind us of the standards we should aspire to. A balanced review can critique an actor’s performance without debasing the person behind the actor.

When did it become acceptable and fashionable to insult an artist in the guise of a critique?  There was a time when such behavior was considered the last resort of poor writers who lacked both skill and imagination.  A truly competent writer could manage to comment on even the physical attributes of the singer in question without resorting to downright mean-spirited adjectives for which he might be challenged by a respectable gentleman wishing to defend a maligned lady’s honor, for indeed these comments go far beyond acceptable form for a learned person, let alone a writer who pretends to report on what is commonly accepted as high-class art.
Is it really a “formulaic” definition to accept that Opera is indeed distinguished by the quality of the singing? In an attempt to appear artistically liberal-minded, Ms. Midgette has done nothing more than to endorse a deconstructionist ideology that accepts any disrespect of the operatic form as an indication of modernism and/or the natural and necessary evolution of Opera.  To add insult to injury, Ms. Midgette concluded that even the praises of the singer’s vocal performance must not have been warranted because “…had the singing really been as glorious as all that, they might not have focused so much on the looks.” The fact that Ms. Midgette herself had not attended the reviewed performance makes that statement insulting and unbecoming of a critic of a major newspaper.  
Indeed “…it’s not the job of the critic to be liked, or to pander to popular tastes,” as Ms. Midgette writes.  But is it necessary for an opera critic to resort to locker-room misogyny to make a point? And what exactly is that point?  That Opera should no longer be an art form defined by high level vocal development? 
What is revealed in this equivocal attempt at finding common ground is only a revelation that Ms. Midgette had drunken the CoolAid of acceptance into the very modern operatic environment that is willing to do away with the classical vocalism that has always defined the art form in favor of more populist, if not popular values, that seem to suggest that opera will be more successful if it aspires to a status of Hollywood or  Broadway wannabe.
That which is popular is not necessarily artistically sound, Ms. Midgette.  Nor does a successful advertisement campaign for an opera company guarantee that the product that is being presented is valid for the current times or any times.  One may be able find flaws in a great production or find virtues in a terrible one.  A Gesamtkunstwerk as Wagner called opera has so many levels of skills to be considered that a singer’s looks would have to be otherworldly to be of serious consequence.  This young woman is not obese by any stretch of the imagination, yet fell prey to nothing other than a modern obsession with the misogynistic, mythical size 0.  
The bard wrote it thus:
Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves, when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die. 
Such is the power of music!  And even more poignant is that power when transmitted through a refined classically trained voice at the command of a well-trained musician.  This is what vocal musicians should aspire to–to move the listener from within, reaching a part of the human spirit that perhaps nothing else can reach.  A great operatic critic should love opera and defend it with a brutally critical pen if must be to prevent it from falling to the level of the banal and common.  In an attempt to avoid being elitist, too many influential parties in the operatic world have chosen, what is easiest and superficial and giving it the name of “democratization of Opera”  Ms. Midgette has simply become what she claims critics should not do: “to be liked and to pander” to those who have the most influence in the field:  the casting directors, stage directors and agents who have made the devil’s deal that opera singers should look like Hollywood movie stars, since the most important medium is now the cinema screens where the most money is to be made. 
This modern “lookism” can be used as a terrible excuse to exclude singers on not only the basis of weight, but height, race, sexual orientation or anything else that members of a production team may find subjectively not to their tastes.  Rather than attempting to understand why these reviews struck such a loud dissonant chord through the operatic world, Ms. Midgette chose to play the role of collaborator.
The final slap in the face was Midgette’s conclusive Exitus autem quae sunt ad finem (The end justifies the means), suggesting that the singer in question will probably have a more important career because of this scandal. Typical!  This only proves that Ms. Midgette has very little idea what moves artists from within.  We all wish to be successful at what we do.  But it does not even take an artist to understand that the type of success that one wants is the type that validates the blood and sweat that we shed for years to accomplish excellence in our chosen fields, not the notoriety that may result from infamy.
For my part, I would prefer to go back to writing about the newest exciting discoveries in acoustic analysis that give us a real understanding of what makes great operatic voices, but how can I focus on that work when these poor excuses for operatic criticism defy the very definition of the art we chose to learn by sacrificing our life’s blood? Why uncover the secrets to the greatest voices in operatic history if we are being told that a gastric bypass will serve us much more toward making a career, even if we do not need one?
This scandal struck us at our core because those critics pretty much gang-banged a talented singer with unmitigated, harsh, verbal violence.  Ms. Midgette’s response is terribly out of touch and downright deplorable.

© 05/25/2014

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