Thursday, October 9, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part X

The Opera Wars

When my soprano pal Jennifer der Torossian and her family founded Bay Shore Lyric Opera in Capitola, they were savvy enough to know that an essential element for building an opera audience in a region that previously had none was to encourage coverage and critique from the local press. But the local editors all told them, "We don't have someone who knows enough about opera to actually critique you." So, they got proactive. They introduced me to an editor at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and, after a perusal of my clips, he took me on.

In the oft-discussed ethical problem known as conflict of interest, there are many, many shades of gray, especially in a community arts scene. Veteran arts writers tend to befriend local directors and performers - especially the good ones. There's really no avoiding it. That said, reviewing would seem to be rife with potential conflict.

Not so with me. I am absolutely incapable of writing a good review of a bad performance - even if the star were my grandmother, on her birthday. But I am well aware of impressions, so here's what I told my new editor: I was friends with Jenny, but the friendship originated with her exceptional talent and taste. However, if she had a bad night, I forewarned her that I would write it up exactly as I saw it. Jenny, in fact, often told me that I scared the hell out of her mother-producer Claire, because I was the one writer in town who really knew what good opera was.

Things went swimmingly for a couple of years. Not much need to criticize Jenny, who was superb as always, but I did find a few needed improvements in production quality and tenor vocals. Then another company sprouted up in town, led by a lyric soprano and her tenor husband. They were doing Carmen, and pestered my editor until he agreed to send a reviewer. It was a memorable performance. Basically because it was the most godawful thing I've ever seen on a stage, an unintentional farce in which the Carmen could neither sing (this being a mezzo role, after all), dance or approximate any level of onstage sexuality. The so-called seductive dancing scene between Carmen and Don Jose was downright painful, and the orchestra was more like a polka band, with the conductor trying to fill in missing parts on an organ. The chorus wore that deer-in-the-headlights look of first-graders playing pieces of fruit in a skit on nutrition.

In critical circles, in small communities, there's an unwritten policy about shows like this. We simply don't print the review. It would be too harsh on the performers, and anything less than an honest review would be too harsh on those who might purchase tickets for it. Given a choice between a vicious review and an inaccurate one, you print nothing. So I called up my editor, assuming that we would be taking this option.

"Are you kidding me?" he asked. "If I don't at least run a review, I'll never hear the end of it."

I wrote a review full of charitable euphemisms, attesting to the difficulties of putting on opera as a form, and suggesting that this group was not yet up for the job. The Sentinel printed it, and the following week I got a call from my editor.

He said he had to take me off the opera beat. Our lovely Carmen said that I was friends with the other opera company in town, and that this bias clearly showd in the horrible review I wrote about her company. I reminded my editor that he knew about this conflict ahead of time, that he knew I was right about the performance, and that a viewing of said production would remove all doubt. But he was having none of it. Clearly, he was going to be a wuss. Clearly, he just wanted to get this annoying woman out of his hair.

"I really like your writing, though. Would you be interested in covering theater for us?"

"I don't think so," I said. I hope that my tone carried the proper connotation of Fuck you.

A month later, that same editor saw a production at Jennifer's theater, fell in love, and wrote up a three-page feature on them to erase any misgivings from The Opera Wars. A lot of good it did me, but at least he was admitting, in a sideways fashion, that he was wrong.

Amazingly, a few years later, I got a gig reviewing Bay Shore Lyric Opera for another paper in town, the Santa Cruz branch of San Jose's Metro, for whom I'd written theater and opera stories for some 15 years. The moment my first review hit the stands, however, my editor got a call from the same Godawful Carmen, and I was once again summarily dismissed from the assignment. This time I didn't make too much complaint (desiring to keep my assignments in San Jose), but I certainly enjoyed myself a few years later when I got a better offer from a rival paper and told Editor Chickenshit Number Two that I was no longer writing for him.
Photo: A Much Preferable Alternative, Liliane Cromer, Jorge Gomez in Bay Shore's 2000 Carmen.

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