Canada Tempest: Debating Critic’s Role In Our Time

Rossini's Maometto II became a battlefield in more ways than one at COC. (Photo by Gary Beechey)
Rossini’s ‘Maometto II’ suffered skirmishes on and off the stage at the Canadian Opera as a critic came under fire.
(Photo by Gary Beechey/Canadian Opera Company)
By Allan Kozinn

ANALYSIS – Surely everyone has heard by now of the contretemps surrounding Arthur Kaptainis’ National Post review of Maometto II, a minor Rossini opera, at the Canadian Opera Company. A post on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog shone a bright spotlight on a dispute between a writer, an opera company, and an editor, and before long the opera company’s publicist – hoping, oddly, for some kind of vindication – threw gasoline on the fire by providing Slipped Disc with the underlying correspondence, a set of chummy emails between herself and Kaptainis’ editor, Dustin Parkes.

There one day, gone the next -- Kaptainis' review in the National Post.
Here one day, gone the next – Kaptainis’ National Post review.

Perhaps to some, the incident is a molehill posing as a mountain. An opera company complained about a review, an editor pulled it, tweaked it, and reposted it, and the critic was upset. But it is much more than that. The sequence of events and their timing, as well as the correspondence, tell us a lot about how criticism is perceived in the current journalistic ecology. It also shows us to whom editors – or at least, one editor – feel beholden, and shockingly, it is not his writer or, by extension, the readers who expect to find reviews of major productions shortly after they open.

No one who has followed criticism in this country over the past decade will see this as an isolated incident. It could not fail to bring to mind the Cleveland Orchestra’s heavy-handed but successful push to have Donald Rosenberg removed as the chief music critic of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland because he was not enthralled with the conducting of Franz Welser-Möst, and there is a good chance that the Canadian Opera Company took encouragement from the Plain Dealer’s editorial spinelessness.

Criticism is under attack elsewhere, too. Just days after the Kaptainis incident, reports in The Boston Musical Intelligencer and elsewhere suggested that The Boston Globe would soon be cutting back its budget for the freelancers who provide much of the Globe’s music writing. (The paper has one staff classical critic, Jeremy Eichler, and its assistant arts editor Steve Smith sometimes steps in to cover performances.) Freelancers are an inexpensive way to make it appear as though a paper is devoted to covering the arts. The fees are low, the benefits are non-existent, and the writers have no union protection. But at the Globe, apparently, inexpensive isn’t inexpensive enough. Or maybe they just don’t see Boston as a musical town.

Arthur Kaptainis
Arthur Kaptainis

What happened with Kaptainis was, in a nutshell, a wholly inappropriate editorial decision that spun out of control, thanks in part to an understaffed newsroom. Kaptainis had been the National Post’s freelance music critic since 2010, and though his beat was mostly local, he periodically filed high-profile reviews from abroad – Simon Rattle leading the Berlin Philharmonic in Bruckner at Carnegie Hall, for example. You would think that the paper would consider itself lucky to have him: he was, for many years, the chief critic of the Montreal Gazette, and he continues to write about music for them as a freelancer, having taken a buyout in 2007. He is fiercely opinionated – a job requisite, one would think – and respected internationally.

Kaptainis began to notice, however, that by 2014, his reviews were appearing mostly online, rarely in print – a situation that he accepted, as many critics have, as a sign of the times. That said, he had been told that the paper had no web manager, an odd circumstance at a time when newspapers are devoting increasing attention to their online presence. So when he attended the premiere of Maometto II on Friday, April 29, he knew that the paper would not be able to post his review online until Monday, May 2. He filed his review that day – and then waited. It took the paper two days to post it.

As soon as the review appeared on May 4, Jennifer Pugsley, the opera company’s media relations manager, wrote to Dustin Parkes with two specific complaints and a general one. One complaint was that a photo by Gary Beechey was incorrectly credited to Michael Cooper. That, of course, was nothing to do with Kaptainis, and an editor who knows how to work with a web page could fix it in under four seconds. Pugsley also took issue with Kaptainis’ description of a scene featuring what he considered a mystifying “striptease by a nearby ballerina.” That was no ballerina, Pugsley insisted; it was “clearly a belly dancer.”

Dance scene from 'Maometto II' (YouTube)
Dance scene from ‘Maometto II’ (YouTube)

What was clear, actually, is that Kaptainis’ comment was a tongue-in-cheek dismissal of the supposed belly dance, and that is surely within his purview. But for the sake of argument, let’s take Pugsley’s literal-minded, humor-averse side. If an operagoer as experienced as Kaptainis sees the dancer as a ballerina, rather than a belly dancer, then the staging has failed to make its point. We expect critics to tell us what they saw and what it meant to them, which is exactly what Kaptainis did.

Pugsley did not leave it there. “I have to confess, Arthur’s reviews continue to baffle many of us at the COC,” she continued in the correspondence provided to Lebrecht. “His opinion is his opinion, and he’s entitled to it, all we ask for from our critics is a fair and open-minded consideration of what we present on our stage. It’s becoming more and more challenging to see that kind of thoughtfulness in his reviews. This is a sentiment that we’ve pointed out to your predecessors.”

Publicists, of course, are as free to criticize reviewers as reviewers are to criticize performances. But there seems to be more here than meets the eye. As Kaptainis pointed out in an email, Alexander Neef, the Canadian Opera Company’s general director since 2008, “has been steadily turning the COC into a Regietheater house. And my reviews have made it clear that I have a problem with that.”

The production, by David Alden, originated at the Santa Fe Opera in 2012. (Ken Howard)
The David Alden production starring Luca Pisaroni originated at Santa Fe Opera.
(Ken Howard, 2012)

Kaptainis believes that the company has a vendetta against him, and that his reviews are scrutinized for opportunities to lodge complaints. That may sound paranoid, but Pugsley’s characterization of his work – and her reference to complaints to Parkes’ predecessors (plural) – suggest that there has indeed been a long campaign to have him removed. She went on, in fact, to invite Parkes to lunch, in the hope of introducing him to Neef, so that he can “hear straight from him about the artistic programming at the company.”

Time was when an editor receiving such a note would reply, courteously, that the paper stands behind its reviewer. An experienced and competent editor would have then revisited the offending ballerina passage and either concluded immediately that it fell within Kaptainis’ right to call it as he sees it, or else would have placed a call to Kaptainis (this exchange happened in the middle of the afternoon) to find out what he had in mind. The editor would then find someone who could quickly fix the mistaken photo credit, while also firing off a memo to the publisher, saying that the absence of a web manager is creating an intolerable lack of flexibility.

What did Parkes do?

“Oh, wow,” he wrote to Pugsely, 19 minutes after she sent her email. “I will take it down immediately, and wait until we have the time to adjust it to put it back up again.”

The “adjustment” took yet another four days, during which Kaptainis was never consulted. When Kaptainis tried to post his review to Facebook on May 5, it was gone. He tried to contact Parkes on May 6, but apparently Parkes’ 20-minute response time is reserved for publicists, not his own writers. He sent Kaptainis an email on May 9, saying that there were “concerns” about the review.

Kaptainis was conciliatory at first, but upon further reflection, he objected to the excising of a passage that he stood behind. He asked that the review not be reposted if it were to be tampered with. Parkes reposted it anyway. Oddly, in the version currently found on the National Post’s site, Kaptainis’ ballerina passage has been deleted. But the one actual error remains uncorrected: the photo is still credited to Michael Cooper. Kaptainis’ full review, in its original form, was posted by Musical Toronto, another of Kaptainis’ regular outlets.

Parkes, meanwhile, warmed to Pugsley’s criticism of Kaptainis, and upped the ante. “I really hate running reviews for performing arts,” the executive producer for arts and culture at the National Post complained to Pugsley. “They simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content. On the other hand, I really want to give attention to performing arts, especially for the best stuff this country is producing. I think the way to best do this, and get eyeballs on the content as well, is to emphasize the visuals being created, either through photography or video.”

A posting by Dustin Parkes, assistant arts editor.
A posting by Dustin Parkes in the National Post arts section.

I wanted to get an idea of what Parkes considered “the best stuff this country is producing” in the performing arts, so I looked at his section. The headline on the lead music story, the day I looked, was “This is hip-hop, you ain’t write it, don’t record it.” There was also a piece about Drake’s $6.7 million mansion, and a TV special about Jamie Lynn Spears, with the call-out quote, “I’m not just a teen mom.”

I looked at some of Parkes’ own stories as well. “Justin Bieber has controversial ideas about tacos” basically summarized comments made by that paragon of Canadian artistry in another publication. There was also “Train recorded a version of Led Zeppelin II, will release it without ‘Not suitable for any living thing’ warning.” Critical opinion, one might think. Actually it turned out to be a Tweet by Train, about its album, which Parkes cleverly annotated with the word “No,” repeated 118 times.

The only comment in his Twitter feed touching on Kaptainis’ review showed that the concerns raised about his handling of it meant nothing to him. “It me. Under the thumb of BIG OPERA,” he Tweeted.

Pugsley’s response to Parkes’ complaint about the low readership of arts reviews showed that she had found a kindred spirit. “I’d love to talk ideas for digital content and completely hear what you’re saying about exploring photography or video for those types of stories,” she wrote.

Well, of course she would. Pugsley had happened upon an editor not only willing to gainsay his own critic without so much as a phone call, but who also trash-talked criticism in general, and proposed promoting the arts with pictures and video – in other words, opinion-free, feel-good publicity. Instead of a robust arts section, in which the merits of performances are debated, he gave every indication that, for him, arts coverage should be a brochure for whichever arts companies are willing to supply visually appealing images.

To put it differently, since he seemingly has no understanding of, or respect for, the requirements of his own job, he is aspiring to do Pugsley’s. The publicity departments of Canada’s arts institutions must be beside themselves with joy – although I suspect that elsewhere at those same institutions, curators and directors would mourn the death of reasoned debate.

As for Parkes’ bean-counting analysis of arts reviews as digital performers, he is, sadly, not alone. Other newspapers, too, are so intent on redefining themselves to appeal to people who don’t read newspapers that they are also claiming that no one is interested in reviews. Reader mail, and in-the-aisles chatter at concert halls suggests otherwise. So do the comments on Twitter and Facebook, which these editors are supposedly engaged with.

There is an extent to which the poor performance of reviews as click-bait is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every day, I receive email summaries from half a handful of newspapers around the country, each promoting a dozen or more stories in that day’s paper, with links to their online versions. Those summaries rarely include links to their classical music reviews. Television and film, sometimes. Pop, yes, but rarely, and only if it’s a major festival. Classical music, hardly ever. An exception is The Wall Street Journal, which sends out an email devoted entirely to Life & Arts pieces. At The New York Times, where twentysomethings come up with new apps almost monthly to point readers to some of its specialties from editorials to cooking, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to build one for the paper’s arts coverage.

Perhaps if papers treated their reviews as if they thought they were worth looking at, and provided an easy access ramp, readers would tune into them. Because if it’s true that people are not clicking on newspapers’ arts reviews, it’s also true that an alternative economy of music sites has arisen (Musical Toronto is one), at which reviews are welcome, and celebrated, and which people do visit. Maybe people who are interested in the arts are abandoning newspapers in favor of those sites because they’ve grown disgusted watching newspapers scuttling their staffs and giving far more attention to ephemera than to artistry.

That isn’t to say that critics couldn’t liven things up – perhaps with the video and pictures Parkes and Pugsley are pining for, only used in a different way. Doing it properly, of course, would be more time-consuming for critics, and more resource-intensive for the paper. And it would mean dealing with hefty logistical and legal issues – which is why it isn’t happening already.

Consider, for example, a multimedia version of Kaptainis’ review. For such a thing to work, the company would have to be prepared to hand over, almost immediately, a full video recording of the performance Kaptainis attended. That would mean that the performers would have had to, in advance, grant the right for Kaptainis and his paper to use part of their performance in his review. The company could, of course, limit the number of minutes Kaptainis could excerpt – but it could not choose those minutes. That would be the critic’s call. And if he chose to illustrate his ballerina comment with a video clip, people could quibble about the scene, but Kaptainis’ ironic meaning would probably have been even clearer and more cutting.

But let’s face it – how likely is it that performers and companies would surrender that kind of control? And with editors like Parkes so eager to jettison informed commentary in favor of uncritical promotional spots, why should they even consider it?

Allan Kozinn wrote about music and musicians for The New York Times from 1977 to 2012, including 21 years as a staff critic. From 2012 to 2014, he covered culture more broadly for the Times, reporting on art, theater, film and television, as well as both pop and classical music. After he left the Times in 2014, he moved to Portland, Maine. Since the summer of 2015, he has been the classical music critic for the Portland Press Herald, and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Opera News and other publications. 



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