Monday, January 5, 2015

Criticism, Bias and Free Tickets

There is rather an interesting dust-up going on now regarding Opera Australia, the director of which has just terminated the complimentary tickets previously given to two writers and music critics. Norman Lebrecht has his usual drive-by treatment here but there is a much longer and more detailed discussion here:
Not only is it customary for reviewers here to accept tickets – so do senior managers, editors and writers, not necessarily all of them directly involved in the organisation’s cultural coverage. In the good old days arts organisations’ largesse was sometimes extended to administrative staff. So what? It’s always been this way.
In other words, there is an entrenched and rather touching belief on our part that disinterested media coverage plus freebies doesn’t equal oxymoron. Although it is a far from satisfactory state of affairs the system continues because it is mutually beneficial. Mostly. We media types scarcely think about the fact that, almost always, reviewers are given not one but two tickets so they can bring a friend along to work, and that drinks are almost always laid on at the premiere. What could be regarded as career-ending inducements in other fields of endeavour are part of the landscape. They don’t stop us from writing a swingeing review if we see fit. We trust ourselves, of course we do. It is insulting to suggest anything else. (Which does raise the matter of quis custodiet ipsos custodes, but let’s move on …)
The situation is scarcely remarked upon unless, as happened at the weekend, something happens to disturb the status quo. There was a flare-up involving Opera Australia and the withdrawal of complimentary tickets to writer Diana Simmonds, who has been accustomed to being invited to Sydney performances. She has recently been highly critical about OA on her website. This brought to light a communication between a contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald, Harriet Cunningham, and OA. On December 8 Cunningham wrote an interesting piece of commentary for’s Daily Review that bore the heading: Why I’m not going to the opera next year. Cunningham also, it appears, is now off the free list.
Read the whole thing.

There is actually quite a lot of ethically questionable behaviour in the classical music world, some of which might occasionally raise to the level of genuine corruption. One thinks of things like competitions rigged in favor of the students of a particular teacher, or conductor competitions with suspiciously hefty entry fees, or glowing reviews of CDs purchased with real cash. Instead of talking very much about these things however, we seem to find more articles about a few orchestras that do not seem to have the statistically correct number of female players. Mind you, over at Norman Lebrecht's website, no opportunity is missed to stir up dirt whether deserved or not.

Of course, the proper thing for any music critic to do would be to purchase tickets to any concert you are going to review, just to avoid the appearance of favor. If this is too expensive, then the publication/employer needs to pay. As Deborah Jones mentions, though, this would be in an ideal world, which we don't seem to live in. What professional record reviewer actually purchases the recordings he reviews? No-one, I suspect.

I wonder if this situation might not be alleviated if the actual criticism itself were clearly related to stated aesthetic principles and not just some personal reactions tossed off right after the performance. If a criticism is based on something that can be shared objectively, then the potential of perceived bias surely would be reduced. But maybe that is more wishful thinking!

Let's end with an opera mentioned in the blog post. Here is the "Queen of the Night" aria from the Magic Flute by Mozart, sung by Natalie Dessay:

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