Critics have never taken their responsibilities more seriously12:56, 12th November 2018
Not many people can call themselves full-time classical music critics these days. It’s a hard line of work to get into – I say that as someone who tried and failed – and a rather easier one to find yourself getting rapidly and unwittingly out of. As witness the (former) opera critic at WhatsOnStage, whose employers have just decided they no longer have room in their bandwidth for opera reviews. Few of us have access to WOS’s business plan, but it’s troubling to see an outlet that revels in the rich variety of the West End choosing to ignore two of its most prolific producers (and that’s just counting ENO and Covent Garden).
The news prompts the old discussion about why critics exist at all in an age when we’re supposed to joyously accept everything for what it is (as long as it doesn’t offend, naturally) or join the social media shouting match in which everyone is a critic anyway. Such discussions usually paint a picture of professional critics as tweed-clad boffins writing reviews for other tweed-clad boffins. Sometimes they are (it’s those ones that are usually asleep).
Good mainstream criticism actually has its roots in simple utilitarianism. I learned just that during my first job as a journalist, on a music magazine in an open-plan office where our little patch of desks merged into a rather bigger patch occupied by the world’s oldest car magazine. Their team was big (it was a weekly), young, shouty and presided over by an energetic young editor who frequently picked up the phone to car manufacturers who had just seen their latest product given a kicking. One of his standard mantras in return was ‘it’s our job to put the product in context, which is what we’ve done.’ Get him angry, and he’d be a little more specific: ‘Our road tester has driven 75 new cars this year – how many have you driven?’
Reviewing concerts and operas may be different to rating SUVs and coupes, but one principle remains the same. Good criticism – especially when it concerns slippery ideas about style, interpretation and ability and even more so when it concerns new work – requires context. Context comes from experience: from seeing a lot of performances and knowing, therefore, what others are capable of and what else is on offer. Is a critic’s opinion worth more than that of an occasional but engaged opera or concertgoer? On a personal level, of course not. On a public level, yes it probably is.
In London especially, the word ‘context’ takes on a whole new meaning when there might be four operas playing on a given Tuesday evening and dozens of new works unveiled each year. Those who have things other than opera on their minds 24/7 might want to know, quickly, how La bohème A differs from La bohème B and which prioritizes certain musical or theatrical principles. Reviewing is as much about dispensing such practical information as it is about handing out laurels.
It’s ironic that while the internet has undermined large swathes of the traditional journalistic ecosystem, it has also focussed many a critic’s mind on the suave but unpretentious communication of vital information. Mainstream reviews have rarely been more to-the-point and less self-regarding than they are today. Rarely do they fling rarefied references around or reek of personal agenda. A decade of having their very existence questioned has apparently forced professional critics into making their work fundamentally useful and refreshingly gregarious. It’s a further irony that Mark Valencia’s reviews for WhatsOnStage were both.
I’d wager that most reviews fitting that description were deceptively difficult to write. They probably relied on regular exercising of the critical muscles (which can all too easily seize up) and rigorous research. They were almost invariably hewn from a huge dedication, mental and physical, to the art form. The American film critic Leonard Maltin warned a generation of younger colleagues last year that ‘if you’ve never seen silent films or foreign language films, if your education with film begins with Star Wars, then you’re handicapped.’ It may be too easy to ‘un-become’ a professional critic these days, but the fact that it’s so hard to become one in the first place might lie behind the quality of the reviews we’re reading.