That review was apparently the straw that broke the back of Met general manager Peter Gelb. On May 21, the New York Times reported that Opera News would no longer review Met productions. (See here.) And Gelb stood up to implicitly take credit for the decision, stating that he wasn’t happy that an organization whose purpose is to support the Met (i.e. the Opera Guild) should publish a magazine that passes judgment on the company’s productions.
Gelb has made his views on free speech known on previous occasions. Not to long ago, he strong-armed New York radio station WQXR into deleting a critique of the Met from its website. And last year, the Met took offense to another website, called Met Futures, which attempted to predict upcoming Met casts. Under pressure, Met Futures was taken down. So Gelb’s response to criticism from Opera News is hardly surprising.
But yesterday something surprising did happen. (See here.) Gelb reversed his previous position vis-à-vis Opera News, announcing that the magazine would continue to review Met productions. In response to the public outcry over the issue, he said, “I think I made a mistake.”
Indeed you did, Mr. Gelb – indeed you did!
Through his ham-fisted action, he laid bare that power structure that ultimately controls Opera News. It’s now perfectly clear that Gelb, as the Met’s GM, has the authority to dictate editorial policy to the magazine. His intervention – however quickly reversed – has harmed Opera News’s credibility. How can readers be expected to take seriously any favourable reviews of Met productions that might appear in future issues now that everyone knows how much influence Gelb can wield – and now that we’ve seen that he’s quite willing to wield it if he can get away with it? Gelb has rung a bell that can’t readily be unrung.
Yet, strange to say, Gelb has a point – and in making it, he (perhaps unintentionally) underscored the fundamental conundrum of the Met Opera Guild’s glossy magazine. It’s true: there is something weird about a publication connected with the Met reviewing Met productions. But on the other hand, there would be something weird about a major American opera magazine not reviewing Met productions. Furthermore, if Opera News stopped reviewing Met productions but continued to review other companies, wouldn’t that be tantamount to saying that the Met holds itself above criticism but is happy to criticize everyone else?
What to do now? Here’s some free Canadian advice.
Some readers of this blog will know a magazine called Opera Canada. It was originally created, over 50 years ago, as an in-house publication of the Canadian Opera Company. But after some years, the inherent contradictions of this arrangement became apparent: as a result, the magazine’s editor, Ruby Mercer, and the COC parted ways. Mercer made Opera Canada into an independent magazine, unaffiliated with any opera company, and that’s what it still is today. (See Opera Canada’s website here – and if it need be said, I do write for the magazine from time to time.)
The best thing that could happen to Opera News would be for it to formally and effectively sever its connections (both real and perceived) with the Met. In the long run, this would be the wisest course of action for all concerned: the magazine could publish whatever wanted without the threat of interference, or the suspicion of interference, from the Met; and the Met could publish a house organ that would be unabashedly a house organ. Until a clear separation is achieved, Opera News is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t, where any discussion of the Metropolitan Opera is concerned.
© Colin Eatock 2012