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Pathetic, Peter Gelb?

Peter Gelb, and with him the Metropolitan Opera, enjoyed “an 8-hour New Coke/Coca-Cola Classic day” last week… an inadvertent (yet perfectly predictable) PR debacle about alleged censorship. The background is best provided by Dan Wakin in the New York Times, here. Shortly after that came the turn-around (well covered here and here and here) – although Gelb’s “I think [!] I made a mistake” (emphasis mine) confession will hardly undo much of the damage.

When it comes to art, I love boldness – which includes, as its main ingredient, bold failure. Performances that do not try something new or don’t take risks fail by default. This is a much more maddening failure than even the worst performance (or production) that had ambitions either unmet or fatally flawed, but tried.

It is in that sense that I rather admire, from afar, Peter Gelb’s efforts (whether successful or not) to drag the Met into the 20th [sic] century. At least he does something about the staid and stale reputation of the house, at least he shakes a few things up, dares change. I even like that he’s got a pronounced commercial side about him. Art is a product, a special one perhaps, but one that needs selling. (Quality control is another matter.)

I can understand how infuriating ignorant, stupid, or most commonly: lazy negative reviews can be. Even I, perfectly uninvolved with the criticized productions, can get physically ill reading the narrow-minded shlock that parades around as a review yet merely boils down to (and sometimes even admits as much): “This is not how it was done when I grew up, therefore Yuckatypoo!” (Watch for the words “Regietheater” and “Eurotrash” as signifiers of diminished intellectual activity.)

I can also understand the temptation of wanting to do something about such (or in fact any) criticism… were I only in a position to do so.

That’s as far as I can go with Peter Gelb, re: the recent hubbub of trying to strong-arm the Met-affiliated magazine Opera News into being less critical of the mothership. But the criticism of the Met’s productions, specifically but not exclusively its Ring, goes well beyond the narrow minded kind of criticism. And much more importantly, anyone who cannot resist the temptation of squelching criticism (of any kind) only because they can, has no business being in the job Peter Gelb is in. It touches uncomfortably on basic artistic and social principles. The “Free Speech” thing might be overblown, since the Met certainly has the right to bully other economic actors around – and the immediate backlash showed, if anything, how resilient the freedom of opinioneering still is, when properly irritated). And Gelb’s actions are outrageous not primarily for being wrong principally, but for being so counterproductive to the goals he ought to be wanting to achieve.

Even if this latest of several attempts to use the Met’s weight for the purpose of soft self-censorship hadn’t blown up in the institution’s face, it would still have served it all. Honest and sincerely critical reviews are an essential part of a thriving artistic environment. Reviews that hedge, and ache to be friendly, and are all ‘uncritical sunshine’ meanwhile, are worse than no review. They are tedious to read, easy to see through, and dismissed – eventually – even by the densest reader. No artist (since Kubelik) has really ever been severely torpedoed by (undeserved) bad reviews. But arts criticism has already been damaged by shills and PR texts masquerading as honest journalism. To think that expressing (occasional or recurring) negative opinions is harmful to an institution like the Met is spectacularly misguided. They are, in their own small way, part of the essence of vital arts. Vitality, after all, is to-and-fro. Not relying on a sad bunch of yes-men and women.

Then again, Gelb also reminded Opera News readers that they are not an independent magazine and that their reviews of the Met really shouldn’t be expected to be fair and unbiased in the first place (even if they were). Their continued coverage of the Met (perhaps ‘a little more careful now’, or, less likely, with increased vigor) is a small, gratifying victory for the magazine’s readers and perhaps other institutions that Gelb will think twice about trying to convince to alter the tone of their coverage, but it won’t make Opera News an inherently independent objective source.

None of this alters the fact that the duty to distinguish between a shill and sufficiently independent reviews (never mind the actual quality of the writing or expressed opinion) still lies with the reader. In that sense Gelb’s Opera News moment, including the backlash, was about choice, not quality control or editorial independence.