Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Performers and Reviewers

I've occasionally gotten email from performers I've discussed on this blog, and I know from talking to other bloggers that I'm not the only one. Sometimes performers even post comments; I've gotten a few from Carey Bell, principal clarinetist of the San Francisco Symphony and formerly of San Francisco Opera's orchestra, and one from soprano Laura Claycomb.

It's evident in some cases that the performers who contact me found the blog postings via a web search, very likely by searching on their own names. Thinking about this, and about the relationship between performers, critics, and reviews, the question arises, why would performers bother reading reviews?

I can think of a reason or two, but just as many reasons not to read reviews. It's wonderful to read a positive or glowing review, of course. But in most cases...I'm not sure what's to be gained.

What if you get a bad or equivocal review? I'm convinced that performers don't benefit from reading these. I've been on stage enough times myself, as a chorister or flutist, to know perfectly well that most performers have a very good idea of how well they did on a given night. I am always more aware than anyone in the audience of the errors I've made or that the chorus or orchestra has made or where somebody really missed a cue badly (including conductors who forget to throw a cue the chorus is expecting). Is a performer going to learn much from reading a critic who says the tenor blew the high note or the bass has a wobble or something else like that? I think not.

A couple of people have said things to me along the lines of, well, a performer might learn something and change from reading reviews. I don't buy that.

Reviews are not pedagogical. A review is one person's perception of what happened in a particular theater or concert hall at one performance. It's a snapshot, and that's it. It has real value as a bit of history. It doesn't show what happens in the course of a run. For example, several people have told me that post-primo performances of Die Walkuere here in SF have been very good, but apparently not as great as what we saw on June 10.

The blogosphere is good for making up this particular lack in reviews; most reviewers don't have time to get to two performances in an operatic run, let alone take in a whole Ring cycle more than once.

And reviewers know these things. We know that we're hearing one or one hundred and fifty humans doing their best for anything from an hour to six hours. We're aware that there's variation and inconsistency. We know what we don't know: whether there's a crisis in a violinist's family and the whole section is sad, or whether the mezzo has a cold or the tenor has allergies. Yes, sometimes there are announcements. Sometimes there aren't.

So do reviews have any value at all for performers? Maybe. I think it's a good idea for performers to have trusted people - partners/spouses, coaches, teachers, a publicist - read and screen reviews, passing along some to the performer according to agreed-upon criteria. If ten reviews by different people over the course of a year make similar points about some perceived lack in the performer, well....maybe that's something to consider.

But a performer shouldn't be learning those things from reviews. The trusted people, especially teachers and coaches, are the right people to say "you've started scooping" or "what about this habit you are developing" or "you look consistently uncomfortable on stage." It's their job, not a reviewer's.


Brian said...

I agree with you on this one, and think your point is well made. BTW I love the new look of your blog.

Anonymous said...

I imagine the people contacting you have felt you were either inaccurate or unfair in your reviews. They probably felt they had the right to respond. It is unlikely they felt they were learning from you, at all, so no worries there. It would be interesting to see what would happen if reviewers were subjected to comparable scrutiny, for the reviewer's qualifications would certainly be the point of discussion and might not hold up well in many instances.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you, Brian, on both counts.

Anonymous - I am not going to discuss the details, but in the cases I'm thinking of, the individuals owned that I had correctly identified some aspect of the performances I was discussing.

Reviewers' qualifications. Well, that's always an interesting subject. Most big-city reviewers, such as Tommasini, Kosman, Will Crutchfield when he was reviewing, and many others have music degrees. I believe Alex Ross's degree is in English, but he studied music as well and had instrumental training.

Personally, I also believe that lots of people who have a good ear and have been listening to a range of performers and performances over a long time period can write damn good reviews. I mean, I've called out plenty of bad reviews by professionals. The Detritus Review's whole raison d'etre is to make fun of bad reviews, many of which are by pros.

I don't espouse the view that performers are learning or should learn from reviews, by me or anyone else, except in the particular case of reviews over time by multiple reviewers making the same point. I think the posting above makes that quite clear.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, I have two more things to add about individuals contacting me because they think I've been unfair or inaccurate. 1. I've never been challenged about a paid review that appeared in SFCV or elsewhere, so the venue apparently counts for as much as what I actually write.

2. Why should any performer be concerned enough about what appears on this blog to contact me about it? I have a readership of about 150 to 200 hits per day. My blogstats indicated that one of the postings that drew email from a performer got fewer than 300 hits. Adding in the possibility that some people started on a different posting and scrolled to that one and the probability that others saw it with a feed reader, maybe 500 people read it. That's way, way fewer people than heard this performer and a tiny fraction of the number who had access to newspaper reviews of the performance. What I write here doesn't affect ticket sales*, doesn't affect careers, doesn't affect the opinions of 99.9% of the people who see any given performer.

So why me? Because my email address is easier to find than Tony Tommasini's? :)

* Okay, I know someone who decided not to see the SF Opera Faust based on my comments. And I can say that reading Brian's reviews of the LA Opera Ring convinced me that I had to see at least one of the operas - I'd've gotten tickets to the full cycle if I could get away this month.

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely right about tiny blog reviews being given entirely too much weight, because of the nature of internet surfing traffic patterns, and simply by the fact of their existence in an extremely narrow field of coverage. I would venture to say there are fewer than 20 personal blogs about opera, and then there are the professional reviews from the major papers, which doesn't really add much in terms of volume of online opinion. There are a few forums to add into that mix, but again how does one know whether the contributed views are informed or educated? I believe the critics in the major publications do, in fact, have background and experience that have allowed them to attain and hold their positions, whether everyone admires them or agrees with what they say or not. I am quite sure people can contact Anthony Tommasini if they wish.

If a performer chooses to do a search on themselves, they might very well happen upon your observations. As you say, it doesn't mean they are worth paying any attention to, and obviously blog comments rarely have any real impact on the profession. If you are going to go to the trouble of publishing your opinions, however, you need to be willing to stand by what you write even if that means someone contacts you to protest or discuss what you have written. You certainly can't have it both ways; being online but wanting to be left alone.

You yourself made a point to say that performers shouldn't be trying to learn from your reviews. I was merely responding to that. I stumbled upon your blog through Opera Cake, btw. Otherwise I wouldn't know about your blog at all. If you enjoy what you do, then keep on doing it - that's the main thing.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm not saying people should leave me alone. I'm asking why they bother. (As far as standing by what I write, I certainly do.)

How you figure out which forum contributors are informed and educated is pretty simple. You read people over some period of time, say, three to six months, and triangulate their opinions with your own and those of people you know or trust. It doesn't take that long to get calibrated.

Anonymous said...

Performers put their heart and soul on the line every time they perform. If they feel a comment, which has disproportionate power only due to being on the internet, is misguided or off the mark in some way, they very well may be moved to have a conversation with the author of that opinion. This field is incredibly difficult, unbelievably competitive, and so any subjective assessment has the potential to irritate.

Triangulation analysis and calibration is not necessary. I can promise you most performers can tell from the get-go what type of individual they are dealing with in terms of taste, knowledge, bio if there is one, etc. The idea that 10 online commenter's reviews add up to a trend is sort of amusing. So many ignorant views, so little time. Most writers are likely clueless about what goes into opera singing at the level they are reviewing. Having studied voice doesn't necessarily qualify.

I am not personally a performer, but I have much experience with this issue. All best.

Lisa Hirsch said...

You say "The idea that 10 online commenter's reviews add up to a trend is sort of amusing."

I'm really curious why you think that's amusing - if ten reviewers (on line or in print) say a singer is singing roles in which he or she is miscast (for reasons of style or for reasons of suitability - a lyric soprano singing spinto roles, for example), you don't think they might be on to something? You've never known a performer to make mistakes in their career?

As you say, many ignorant reviews, but also good ones. Regardless, the thrust of my posting, overall, is that performers are better off ignoring reviews, whether in print or on the Internet. Better to pay attention to teachers, coaches, fellow performers, and conductors.

Anonymous said...

Because there is nothing saying that those whose hobby it is to blog about opera online are inherently authoritative. They have been provided an unlimited public forum, that is all, and they choose to express their opinions there. They shouldn't mistake that for artists or other professionals inviting them to do so, or applauding their efforts - particularly if they are extremely flawed as is often the case.

Yes, performers make mistakes all the time, but that has nothing to do with your feeling that bloggers are necessary to the process of self-evaluation. As you keep saying, actually - so really there's no need to keep this discussion going.

My comments about ignorance have as much to do with positive commentary as negative, to be clear.

Lisa Hirsch said...

It's interesting that you keep thinking I mean "bloggers" when I say "reviewers." I don't. And nowhere have I said that I believe bloggers are necessary for the process of self-evaluation. Please take another look at the original posting, where what I say is highly qualified (maybe there's one case where a performer might consider what reviewers say) and where I say unequivocally that coaches, etc. are the right people to learn from.

Anonymous said...

But aren't many bloggers under the illusion that they are reviewers, if we are being honest? Many are on rather poignant power trips, in my experience, so I don't think a reality check is such a bad thing.

My point is that for every 10 opinions expressed online by either bloggers or reviewers or even professional critics or whoever else, there may be 10,000 people with equally valid and informed viewpoints who disagree, but they aren't going online to tell everyone what they think. This is a "universe" with more than a few self-appointed masters, that's all.

This is your blog, you wrote the post so it obviously meant something to you, and you should have the last word. Happy blogging!

Lisa Hirsch said...

I always get the last word here.

patty said...

I'll be honest here. If I've played well I'm just hoping it gets noticed. Most musicians I know are as insecure as the next guy and we all need a pat on the back. I also need them because, as a university instructor, I have to submit a packet of "good stuff" every so often to prove my worth. The Big Guys get 'em, of course, for the clippings they can use in promotional stuff, but their agents can actually take care of that.

Do I read them to learn anything? Nope. Not really. (See? I said I'd be honest!)

If I've bombed (as I did the first night of a recent concert) I say I'm not going to look at 'em, but I always find I've lied because I can't resist. I look to see if I've been blasted to death.

I do not remember any of my good reviews by heart. I have my first bad one (received sometime in the 70s) memorized.

I suppose the main reason I read them is to inflate what is probably an already inflated ego.

patty said...

Oh ... and a little PS ... I would never respond to a bad or erroneous review. Even to defend myself (for instance, when I had water in a key and had to back off of a particular note throughout a solo. Or when the conductor was the one at fault, not me.). I feel it is inappropriate to respond, but ... MORE honestly ... I fear the reviewer will retaliate.

Oh ... and I'm a wimp!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, Patty! I'm sorry you had a bad night.

patty said...

Aw thanks, Lisa! It was one bad night and it had been a very long time since something like this has happened. Truth be told, it was about 2 seconds time-wise. But any performer knows 2 seconds can seem awfully long!

But that's live music for you. 2 seconds can ruin my night, but I heard from some people who were there and they hadn't a clue and it didn't ruin their night. So there's that. (And at least my name didn't appear in the review. Whew!)

The first year (1975) I was in this business I would cry buckets if I made any sort of error. Now I mostly get very angry at myself, but I manage to deal. 8-)

(And, truth be told, I've heard the Big Guys make some mighty big mistakes at times. Somehow I'm never as horrified with their mistakes as I am with mine.)

Henry Holland said...

Because there is nothing saying that those whose hobby it is to blog about opera online are inherently authoritative

Of course not, but here's where I slightly beg to differ:

I'm a fanatic about the operas of 3 composers: Schreker, Birtwistle and Korngold. I have every commercially released recording of all of their operas, I have the scores to most of them which I've studied/listened along with, I have every pirate/bootleg recording that circulates of Schreker and Birtwistle's operas and most of Korngold's too (I'm missing some Die Tote Stadt's since it's become a standard rep piece again). I mean, jeebus, how many people on this planet besides me have FIVE performances of Das Wunder der Heliane on tape/CD? Brendan Carroll? Jessica Duchen?

My point being: 9 out of 10 times, I know more about the operas of those composers than any critic, I know the performance history of those operas, ergo I'm probably a more reliable guide to a performance of The Second Mrs. Kong or Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin than Joshua Kosman or Alex Ross or whomever.

It's a really sad and pathetic claim to fame, but them's the breaks. :-)

Lisa Hirsch said...

Patty, yeah! An eternity!

Henry, that is fantastic, and, yes, you do know more about those operas than, well, yeah.

Robert Gordon said...

As to Mr. Holland's pathetic claim to fame, here is GB Shaw's comment on the musical obsessions of his youth: "It ended in my knowing much more about music than any of the great composers, an easy achievement for any critic, however barren."

Twenty-five years ago or so, I had that kind of collector's expertise about Les Troyens, but fortunately there are now too many performances for me to keep current.

John Marcher said...

I've received comments from two performers- the first in an email that took offense with what I'll admit was an exceptionally snarky and scathing review. His reply was ten times bitchier than my post. The performer and I went back and forth and it was really an interesting exchange, culminating in my offer to buy him a drink the next time he hit town and his acceptance of the offer. I really wanted to publish the emails, but he requested I didn't. What I took from the experience was to try refrain from writing something I wouldn't feel comfortable telling the person to their face- but sometimes it's just too tempting to cross that line and I do.

The second time, a member of the orchestra over-reacted to some negative elements of an overall positive review and basically called me an ignorant boob. He then sent me an email apologizing at length, which I didn't publish either, because I didn't want to embarrass him further.

But I don't consider myself a reviewer- I just like being part of the online conversation about thing which interest me.

I too, like the new look btw.

Lisa Hirsch said...

ooo, all very interesting! I understand the performer not wanting the comments published. And that's certainly one reasonable standard for what one writes.

And thank you!

Henry Holland said...

Twenty-five years ago or so, I had that kind of collector's expertise about Les Troyens

I remember when the Dutoit recording came out, it was treated like manna from heaven amongst my circle of opera queens: "Finally, a *second* recording of the complete Troyens".

Would you recommend the Gardiner DVD from the Chatelet or the Davis performance that the LSO released on their own label? Or has your collectors mania for Berlioz' masterpiece waned by now? :-)

Robert Gordon said...

The Gardiner DVD is sufficiently different from the other performances so that comparison is difficult. It has an early-instrument orchestra (including the now obsolete saxhorns that Berlioz called for, the only recording to use them), and lighter voices to go with it. Gregory Kunde as Aeneas is not my idea of the right sort of voice for the part, although he's OK within his limits. Anna Caterina Antonacci is a great Cassandra, and Susan Graham a fine Dido, although I expect she'll be even better the next time she does it (Met 2013, I think). The physical production is also kind of light-weight, short on the Grand Opera spectacle that I would like, but the other available videos are all problematic, so this is by default the best-looking video.

The Met Opera video from Oct 8, 1983 (I was in the house that night!) has great lead performances, but the production is pretty stodgy, and Levine goes for a weightier Wagnerian sound than I think is appropriate for Berlioz's neo-classicism. (I'm hard to satisfy: I think Levine is too heavy and Gardiner too light.)

Colin Davis's second recording is just fabulous from the conducting point of view, the best I've ever heard. His first, from 1969, was pretty terrific, but somehow he managed to find even more beauty and nuance the second time around, without losing he big picture. The lead performances are good without being definitive. Anyway, if I were going to get only one recording, this would be it.

The only recording to avoid like the plague is the video from Salzburg, with Deborah Polaski. The text has been mangled, with the ballets omitted but extra music added to give the chorus time to get on and off stage (which took too long because of the awkward unit set).

The chief advantages of the Dutoit recording are: (1) a francophone chorus with excellent diction, and (2) an extra little scene in the first act, about 5 minutes long, that Berlioz cut but that has some merit.

My favorites of the lead performances: for Cassandre, a tie between Shirley Verrett (1973 Met broadcast) and Jessye Norman (1983 Met video). For Aeneas, Jon Vickers (Davis 1969, Met 1973) is still head and shoulders above anyone else. Domingo (Met video) is very good, especially considering that the part is basically too high for him. Dido: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson for anyone who was lucky enough to be there, otherwise Troyanos (Met video).

Such is my obsolete expertise.

Lisa Hirsch said...

THANK YOU, that is a great rundown. I have Davis I and none of the others. Now I want them all.