Review deleted! Critic quits! Opera company implicated! Norman Lebrecht's involved! Canada! Wait, what?
Let's go back to the beginning. First, we'll establish the facts. Then, I'll outline some of the controversies and discussions that have swirled around the incident.
Fact: Music critic Arthur Kapitainis published a review of the Canadian Opera Company's Maometto II
Overall, the review — in Canada's National Post — was pretty positive. "The three-hour-and-20-minute show at the Four Seasons Centre can be recommended heartily to bel canto enthusiasts and cautiously to general opera lovers who are endowed with the appropriate mix of curiosity and patience."
Fact: The company wrote to Kapitainis's editor
Jennifer Pugsley, coordinator of media relations at the Canadian Opera Company, wrote to the Post's Dustin Parkes. She pointed out one erroneous photo credit, and also noted that Kapitainis referred to a dancer in the show as a "ballerina" when, in fact, "she's clearly a belly dancer," wrote Pugsley.
Okay. Pugsley added, in correspondence that she herself subsequently posted on Norman Lebrecht's blog, "I have to confess that Arthur's reviews continue to baffle many of us at the COC. His opinion is his opinion, and he's entitled to it, all we ask for from our critics is a fair and open-minded consideration of what we present on our stage. It's becoming more and more challenging to see that kind of thoughtfulness in his reviews."
Fact: The editor pulled the review
Not an edit, not a revision, not a note — straight-up deletion from the paper's website. (The review had never been planned to run in the paper's print edition.)
"Oh, wow," wrote Parkes. "I will take it down immediately, and wait until we have the time to adjust it to put it back up again."
Did Parkes mention this to Kapitainis? He did not.
Fact: Kapitainis saw what had happened, and seems to have quit
Kapitainis noticed what had happened, and told Parkes not to bother revising and republishing. Parkes was also apparently left with the impression that Kapitainis was done writing for the paper. Subsequently, Kapitainis republished the review ("ballerina" characterization intact) in Musical Toronto.
Fact: The story went viral
Lebrecht picked it up, and it was covered by influential writer Anne Midgette in the Washington Post. "What it shows is a waning understanding of, and tolerance for, not differences of opinion — those rage happily on in every paper's Comments sections — but the role of criticism and the arts in a society where they have less dominance," she wrote.
Okay, now for the talking points. What does this all mean?
Was Parkes out of line?
It's certainly not standard practice for an editor to outright delete a review in a situation like this. More typical would have been to correct the mistaken photo credit, consider revising the "ballerina" language, and take Pugsley's comments into consideration regarding future reviews. Certainly, if for any reason an article had to be unpublished, contacting the writer to let him know about the development would have been appropriate.
But why was the review yanked?
Here's the rub. In his e-mail to Pugsley, Parkes made a statement that has resounded ominously across the Internet: "I really hate running reviews for performing arts. They simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content."
There are some bottom-line considerations at play, then. Writing in Maclean's, Lev Bratishenko says that "in the Age of Metrics, the poor performance of criticism has been the perfectly shaped stick to beat critics with." Arguing that the National Post has become oriented towards profit rather than public service, Bratishenko sees the Post incident as a bellwether of the end of an era: the era when mainstream publications subsidized criticism because it was the right thing to do. "The end of mainstream criticism," he writes, "is also the end of a kind of public enthusiasm about art."
What's the proper relationship between companies and critics?
There's yet another angle here: the relationship between the opera company and the National Post. Parkes is chummy in his e-mails to Pugsley, sharing information about performance metrics (not typically considered appropriate to communicate to sources), and setting up press tickets for himself to see the show.
Though unusual in some respects — and certainly in what followed from it — the exchange generally is not atypical of professional communication between companies and publications that cover them. Companies, of course, try to spin coverage (ideally, positive coverage); and publications strive to maintain access (not just complimentary press tickets, but also inside scoops that can help them get a jump on their competition).
The idea that a company would seek to arrange a meeting to discuss the tone and tenor of coverage isn't crazy. As a theater critic, I've personally been invited to have a conversation about my reviews with the director of a major local company; I took the meeting, and it did help inform my future coverage, though it didn't alter my opinions about what I was seeing on stage.
Still, inevitably — and, to an extent, appropriately — symbiotic relationships develop between companies and publications. In this case, was Parkes overly deferential? Maybe.
Is this the end of mainstream criticism?
Bratishenko aptly notes that criticism has been, effectively, subsidized by newspapers. In the pure-print era, the number of consumers who were plunking down their nickels to read the opera review was probably relatively low compared to those who wanted to know the sports scores or the weather forecast.
In the digital era, publications' components have been decoupled — so classified advertising goes away, taking a major revenue stream with it, and it's suddenly very apparent just what stories are getting readers and which ones aren't. As Shakira might say, clicks don't lie: it's hard for cash-strapped publications to pay reviewers when it's apparent that their coverage isn't attracting eyeballs.
Still, criticism isn't going away: it's just moving to the blogosphere and to specialty publications, where it's sustainable even with relatively few readers. I appreciate Bratishenko's observation that something is lost when critics aren't asked to communicate to a broad audience — and that the decline of mainstream criticism can hurt artists.
"The best critics," Bratishenko writes, "can even transcend their genre through the quality of their writing, or their ability to link ideas in music with other ideas in contemporary culture. Those are the best kinds of critics to reach people who do not buy tickets, yet."
Under the circumstances, it might be surprising how much criticism actually remains at commercial publications. Critics are still linchpins of the arts ecosystem, the arts still have an audience (in some cases, albeit not usually opera, a massive audience), and that audience expects to read criticism as part of well-rounded coverage.
Pure-promo sites might get clicks, but they don't develop relationships — between readers and publications, or between audiences and artists. Relationships between publications and artists, on the other hand, might be getting tighter than ever. Is that a good thing?