Tag Archives: Censorship

The Met Relents

Reaction was obviously swift, furious and focused, and now the Metropolitan Opera has sent word that Opera News will indeed continue to review new Met productions. An emailed statement came from Lee Abrahamian:

May 22, 2012

Opera News Will Continue to Review Metropolitan Opera Productions

In view of the outpouring of reaction from opera fans about the recent decision to discontinue Met performance reviews in Opera News, the Met has decided to reverse this new editorial policy. From their postings on the internet, it is abundantly clear that opera fans would miss reading reviews about the Met in Opera News. Ultimately, the Met is here to serve the opera-loving public and has changed its decision because of the passionate response of the fans.

The Met and the Met Opera Guild, the publisher of Opera News, have been in discussions about the role of the Guild and how its programs and activities can best fulfill its mission of supporting the Metropolitan Opera. These discussions have included the role of reviews in Opera News, and whether they served that mission.  While the Met believed it did not make sense for a house organ that is published by the Guild and financed by the Met to continue to review Met productions, it has become clear that the reviews generate tremendous excitement and interest and will continue to have a place in Opera News.

That’s good news. But something  more is needed. Peter Gelb needs to make a personal, affirmative statement that he endorses the magazine’s editorial freedom. This isn’t about demanding a groveling apology. It’s about the basic dynamics of censorship.

Censorship works through fear, and it instills fear asymmetrically. The censor doesn’t need to read every word, monitor every statement, or enforce a long list of directives. Quite the opposite. The censor merely needs to make writers, editors and publishers nervous. The more vague the censor is about what is and isn’t allowed, the more power he or she has to enforce control over expression.

I’ve spent a lot of time in countries where freedom of the press is nonexistent. Journalists in authoritarian countries speak of “red lines,” invisible, vague, but powerful gray zones that keep expression constrained. They talk about the red lines as if they’re tangible, but also admit that no one knows exactly where they lie. And that’s the point.

A threat to free speech is never a single, isolated act. It casts a pall, and the people threatened carry that sense of fear with them, self-censoring.

Opera News, over the years, has grown into a remarkably independent publication, and it deserves great credit for defining its mission not only as a voice for the Metropolitan Opera, but as a voice for opera in America and beyond. It performs a valuable service for opera lovers, many of whom will never buy a ticket or attend a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. This rather idiotic (and failed) effort to limit its editorial freedom can lead to two possible futures for the magazine. If Gelb doesn’t affirm the magazine’s freedom from in-house editorial control, Opera News will go forward under a cloud. If Gelb can be coaxed into a genuine statement in support of the magazine’s independence, it will emerge stronger, and will be well positioned to continue its admirable mission of service not just to the Met, but to opera everywhere.

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The Met censors…and loses

The Metropolitan Opera has decided not to allow Opera News, published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, to review any more Met performances. Unhappy with occasional negative (and sometimes quite pointed) reviews, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb pulled the plug on a tradition dating back to the 1970s. From now on, the Met’s own publication, and the classical music magazine with the largest circulation in the United States, will say nothing negative about the Met. The New York Times reports:

“As of the June 2012 issue, Opera News is not reviewing Metropolitan Opera productions,” F. Paul Driscoll, the magazine’s editor in chief, said in a terse telephone interview. He declined to elaborate but acknowledged that no other opera company had been banished from its pages.

The decision makes another fine artistic institution look simply corporate, more concerned with message and brand control than the free play of art and creativity. The Met loses the input of critics with long institutional knowledge, disappears from a section of the magazine that is lively and well read, and demonstrates to its loyal fan base that it is a nervous, prickly, bureaucratic organization.

Good criticism is an endangered species in American journalism. It has all but disappeared from most American newspapers, and is now yet more circumscribed within the pages of the last vigorous classical music publication in the country.

It’s easy for critics, like me, to become tribal and protective about criticism, without explaining why it matters. One reason it matters is that, when done well, it provides a template for how to listen and remember. The latter, remembering, is key. Criticism isn’t just part of the public memory of a musical performance, it is a demonstration of how to process and analyze a complicated aesthetic experience, what to take note of, and how to organize those memories into something that may stay with you long after the performance. Often, I believe the greatest danger art faces in our busy, chaotic, jangling world is that most people feel that the experience is ephemeral. The curtain comes down, they head to the subway and by the next morning, they legitimately wonder: What do I remember? What stays with me? Criticism, done well, doesn’t just document how one writer remembers a performance, it offers guidance in the kind of thinking and observation that helps everyone remember.

It is about making sure that art isn’t forgettable, in all senses of the word. The Met, as one the most important old-guard artistic institutions in the country, would be better served by actively supporting criticism, not limiting it.

UPDATE: The Met Relents

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Index on Censorship

I was asked by the U.K.-based Index on Censorship to contribute an article about the Smithsonian Hide/Seek controversy to the Art issue they published in September (Volume 40, Issue 3, September 2011). They don’t post the entire contents of the journal on line, but kindly gave me permission to link to a pdf of it here. It’s a longish read but lays out in greater depth and with more historical background why I think G. Wayne Clough’s decision to censor his own curators was so disastrous for the Institution and for American culture. And some links to previous Hide/Seek coverage including this one from when the flap was at its most contentious and another post from New York when the curators address an audience at the New York Public Library.

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