The Met's Wotan brandishes his staff
As reported in today's New York Times, Opera News magazine has announced that it will no longer review productions by the Metropolitan Opera. The magazine, published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, a largely independent afilliate of the opera company, had been reviewing Met productions for over 30 years, sometimes negatively. Recently, however, the negativity of Opera News's Met reviews has "reached a crescendo," if you'll pardon the vernacular misuse of the musical term. So, the Met's general director, Peter Gelb, "in collaboration with the guild," (his words), put a stop to the reviews.
This decision and others like it of course make Mr. Gelb as large a target for criticism as the controversial multi-million dollar Robert Lepage production of Richard Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung, at which Opera News's critics and writers have taken frequent aim. I'm not here to agree or disagree with the critics' take on this or any Met production; you can read the views of NEPR's Walter Carroll on the Ring here. Nor would I dispute Mr. Gelb's right to apply whatever influence he possesses however he wants, especially upon a periodical closely associated with the company he runs. And there's no question that it takes a tough person to run the Met, and that Gelb's longest-tenured predecessors, from Giulio Gatti-Casazza to Sir Rudolf Bing to Joseph Volpe, were not exactly sweethearts themselves.
But something of significance has been diminished by Opera News's decision, however and whyever it made it: the magazine itself. While most other in-house publications could easily be dismissed as lightweight purveyors of puff-pieces, I'd long been impressed by Opera News's writing quality and editorial independence. Sure, its pages contained plenty of glamour and glitz — what would an operamag be without them? But the articles had substance, the CD, video and production reviews called 'em as they saw and heard 'em, and the columnists had freedom to tackle the big topics, including the Met. (Here a cyber-samizdat copy of the last and perhaps decisive example of the latter, a scathing column by editor Brian Kellow on the current state of the Met.) I'm writing in the past tense, not because the magazine has ceased publication — it hasn't. I do so because for me, Opera News will never be the same.
One way to judge the integrity of any news outlet is by how openly it covers itself and its associates. NPR has constantly been under the scrutiny of listeners and media watchdogs alike for its coverage of its own controversies, as well as those of its corporate underwriters. I think the network has held up very well under such scrutiny, and say that without being under any pressure to toe the company line. I can't say that about Opera News any longer, and think that both the magazine and the Metropolitan Opera look very small today.
UPDATE: Less than one day later, Gelb and the Met have changed course. The reviews will go on.