What’s killing criticism? The stars…

What’s killing criticism? The stars…


norman lebrecht

May 25, 2014

In his defence of the corpulent adjectives he used to describe a comely young singer in Glyndebourne’s Rosenkavalier, Richard Morrison, chief music critic of (London’s) Times, wrote on Thursday:

The Times has yet to receive a single letter, email or online comment objecting to what I wrote. Which suggests that the general public accepts that when people perform in front of a paying audience, the total image they present — looks, voice, acting ability and suitability for the role — is fair game for critical comment.’

Yesterday, the Times published seven letters.

Five of them related to its splash coverage of the big, fat opera row and only one specifically to the original review. This will be intensely frustrating for professional critics, indicating as it does that the review was, at most, skim-read on first publication.

Why is that? Consult the stars.

In a former life, as assistant editor of a formerly respected newspaper, I fought hard and successfully against the blight of applying star ratings to reviews of live performances. My argument was that once readers counted the stars they would not bother to read those reviews. Of all my gloomiest predictions, I fear this one has been most fully validated. When I stepped down, the stars took over.

Today, critics whose columns are unadorned by stars stand a chance of getting read down to the very end. The rest must hope for a scandal or a miracle to secure close attention from a general readership.

tara erraught munich

Tara Erraught as Romeo in Munich’s I CAPULETI E I MONTECCHI. Photo: Wilfried Hösl




  • David Ward says:

    Perhaps; but maybe it’s just that with so many sources of information, print, on-line, broadcast &c many of us (I’m guilty) have become increasingly cursory in the way we read press articles and tend to skim. I suspect that the star ratings are not the chief culprit.

    • lizbie says:

      No, what’s “intensely frustrating” for “professional critics” is the fact that hardly anyone reads them! Nowadays, readers go online to the many websites which feature critics who actually focus on the music. You can compare all the reviews on http://www.theoperacritic.com

  • mikealdren says:

    If you dislike stars so much, why do you publish reviews with star ratings on Sinfini?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Good question. I have always drawn a line between star ratings for recorded product – film, cds, dvds – where the objectivity of the measurement can be universally tested, and live performance, where it cannot. Record reviews, generally the briefest of all forms, may not go unread as a result of star dusting.

  • Una says:

    Yes it has to look and sound convincing but there is a fine line in all of this. I wonder if a 50 something got up and sang Octavian, in an atrocious and unflattering costume, how it would have been reported?