Media lashes back at ‘childish’ opera chief

Media lashes back at ‘childish’ opera chief


norman lebrecht

January 04, 2015

The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s most respected newspaper, has given a kicking to Lyndon Terracini, the ‘outspoken and polarising’ artistic director of Opera Australia who (as we reported) has effectively banned two leading critics from performances.

harriet cunningham


Harriet Cunningham, the SMH chief reviewer (pictured), was told she would not receive review tickets, while Diana Simmonds of StageNoise was taken off the media list altogether, denying her access to production information.

The SMH has avoided responding in kind with a boycott of Opera Australia. Instead: ‘The Herald’s position is that the paper will not have our critics chosen for us by companies, and Cunningham, whether with a comp ticket or one that the Herald purchases, will review Faust for our readers.’ More here.




  • Peter says:

    Not banned, just denied free tickets. Big difference.

    • SVM says:

      Exactly. Why should critics get special treatment over the rest of us audience-members, especially given that most (not all) critics have repeatedly demonstrated their inability/unwillingness to comment intelligently on the music (trying to hide their deficiencies by either making petty swipes at sopranos who dare to go on stage without being pencil-thin mannequins and violinists who dare to stand up to badly behaved audiences, or constantly making bold, sweeping statements about “the future of classical music”)? Furthermore, the big newspapers have bigger budgets than orchestras, and is not “accessibility for all” supposed to be modish, not exclusive receptions and perks for the critics.

    • Halldor says:

      “Free” tickets are part of the equipment a critic requires to do their job – a job which remains a vital part of a healthy artistic culture. Rates for opera and concert reviews on all but the largest international publications are at an all-time low; and there’s absolutely no way that most newspapers (for whom arts reviews are rarely a priority) would (even if they could) pay for tickets. Denying a critic free tickets does not prevent them attending performances but its a knowing and deliberate attack on their ability to do their job – and one that in the long term could make that job impossible.

      The artist/critic relationship is not one-way. Quite apart from the artistic benefit that any mature, intelligent artist or company derives from having access to considered, thoughtful assessment of their work, artists derive value from using and circulating favourable reviews. You’ll find quotes from critics on practically every artist’s website or printed biography, and plastered all over their promotional material, sometimes years after the review in question was published. There’s never any question of artists licensing or paying for re-use of the critics’ work (don’t forget that critics are creative artists in their own right), and nor should there be – but the value to the artists of these judgments derives wholly from the credibility of the critic who wrote them. That credibility exists because critics have the right to be negative when they judge that it’s necessary. I’ve never met a critic who didn’t take that responsibility intensely seriously.

      Every major artistic organisation pays money – far more than any newspaper critic (in the UK, at any rate) receives – to PRs or marketing people. Many arts journalists simply reproduce that party line unquestioned (Mr Lebrecht is a rare and very refreshing exception). Intelligent artists don’t want to be surrounded only by a chorus of praise – but some, particularly at the top of the tree, hear so little else that they come to believe it, and to regard anything less as an impertinence or an attack. Then, like Teracini, they make fools of themselves and damage their company’s standing. Critics hold the line against the tide of PR; they speak for the composer, the art, and above all, the audience. A “free” ticket is a very small price to pay for that.

      • CDH says:

        Well said, all the way, Halldor. Most critics I know take both their subject and the role of criticism very seriously and are students of both.

        And why should they have to pay to go to work? Some newspapers pay for tickets on a very puritanical basis, wanting complete exemption from any possible charge of conflict of interest. But a lot of critics, including some of the most expert, are self-employed freelancers, and buying tickets would take a massive bite out of a newspaper fee for the review. Companies and houses traditionally provide complimentary press tickets to events so that they will be reviewed, and there is a tacit understanding that no suborning of favour is involved: the critic is free to write a he/she finds.

        Good for the SMH in making sure Terracini is not let off the hook by his petty and pathetic gesture. But they will not long pay for opera tickets. Someone senior to Terracini needs to quietly reinstate the journalistic access of both these reporters. And to tell him to grow up.

        • SVM says:

          It may well be the case that critics require free tickets to do their job, but, as artists and promoters, we do not owe them a living. The media gets to pick and choose which performances to review; why should promoters not get to pick and choose upon which critics (if any) to bestow the *perk* of a complimentary ticket?

          • Halldor says:

            A complimentary ticket is not a ‘perk’; it’s part of a two-way exchange. The promoter gets to use the critic’s words and reputation in marketing material, and indeed on funding applications – and let’s be honest, some promoters are pretty shamelessly selective in which of those words they use.

            It’s telling that one of the few things that makes artists kvetch more than a bad review is not being reviewed at all. I’ve worked as a promoter, a performer and a critic. In the former categories, I’d rather have had a lukewarm but considered review from a single reputable critic than a month’s worth of wall-to-wall positive PR spin.

          • CDH says:

            Certainly artists and promoters do not owe critics a living. But if they cut off critics from the normal practice of their business based upon reviews they do not care for, what is that saying of the artists’/promoters’ expectations of the transaction? Among the roles of critics, neither selling tickets to the public nor praising where it is not their honest view is a duty. It would be a travesty.

            I once gave a very hard review to a major ballet company — both of the standard of performance I had seen, which was not up to their usual mark, and of a new ballet on which they had lavished a lot of publicity and a ton of money. When I ran into the company’s ballet mistress a few months later — someone with whom I had always had a good relationship — I was a little apprehensive, but she greeted me as warmly as ever and when I expressed regret that what I felt I had to might have caused some wounded feelings, she said the review had been very good for all of them. I had credibility with the company, and they considered my view given that I had often rightly praised them for outstanding work (and works). My relationship with the company never suffered, from tickets to interview access to all the material I required to cover them properly. The new ballet was struck from their repertoire after that season and never performed again. I have no idea to what extent my opinion of it contributed to that decision, and I am sure I was not alone in finding it inadequate. But I treated them as professionals, and vice versa.

    • Harry Kirschner says:

      Well said. The paper should front the cost of the ticket (singular). If the critic wants more, s/he can pay out-of-pocket. The comp situation has gotten out of hand. In many parts of the world, the low quality of the criticism hardly merits it.

      • CDH says:

        Here there is a point. This blog has been active in observing the removal of dedicated and expert critics from various publications, as well as the moving on or death of people we are sad to lose from the fields of criticism where they have plied their trade. I would not quarrel that standards are shrinking. When I was an active critic, my peers were intimidatingly qualified in many cases, and where they were not, they were soon passed by up-and-comers who could do better. (I rather began as one of those). These days, people with credentials are being shunted aside by editors who would not know an opera from a glee club, and replaced by anyone who has a free evening. If, in the case of some publications, at all.

        Unfortunately, I suspect one of the reasons that arts critics are being at the very least sidelined is because the readers do not read them. And financially-strapped newspapers cannot keep arts critics who are only read by the artists and the promoters, unless the companies or individuals involved are major advertisers. I got ahead as a starting-out critic who began by substituting for the regular dance critic because readers wrote in and stated that they preferred what my reviews gave them. (The previous writer, a socialite with some basic knowledge but little critical acuity, had indeed “done it for the free tickets”). And if I made a mistake in a story, my editors heard from readers, as they did if I expressed a view a reader did not like or agree with. Nowadays, I doubt that happens very much — so editors do not see sufficient response to reviews to carry them. Except for movies, of course, where there was never much public response — but they are massive advertisers, even today, in papers.

        • DLowe says:

          I think a problem here is that an argument has been made from the particular to the general. This article/piece is about a manager attempting to punish two critics for doing their job impartially. I don’t think it was appropriate to turn it into a discussion on the wider question of ‘free’ tickets for critics.

          However, since it’s happened, I agree with all of CDH’s comments up to a point. I do read the critics, for several reasons. Firstly, I like to see what people (I read several) with a more extensive background knowledge of music thought of a performance I attended. Secondly, I find that these particular reviews often contain a little gem about the work or composer that I didn’t know. Thirdly, more generally, I like to know what’s happening in the classical world. I want to hear if a particular singer has been brilliant, or if a conductor is cementing his reputation as an expert in an area, or if a director should be avoided. And as people have already said, why should a critic have to pay to do his job?

          As you say, CDH, I doubt the papers would be interested in publishing letters regarding reviews anyway – I frequently feel inclined to write in, but as the paper is unlikely to publish the letter, I don’t see the point. I look at the Sunday Times Culture Section, where there is a You Say box on every day of the tv listings, where people get into various little debates, often about the most banal things, and despair. Why isn’t that available for theatre, opera etc.?

          I would say that I tend to read Rupert Christiansen most frequently, and I have never found him lacking, apart from in the amount of characters the paper allows him. Likewise Hugh Canning. Both are, to my mind, intimately qualified.

          • Harry Kirschner says:

            “And as people have already said, why should a critic have to pay to do his job? – …”

            This blog has an international audience so I’m not sure how much U.S. norms apply. Here, employers routinely charge employees to come to work. If the firm is in a crowded city, parking is not free and is usually borne by the employee. Some employers conveniently own the parking garages. Also, restaurant critics normally don’t request free meals and many strive to be anonymous. Music and theatre critics here typically expect free admission for themselves and a guest. Most of us don’t take guests to our places of work. Many also expect free parking and/or a drink at intermission. Few employers allow drinking on the job.

            The critics want and expect freebies in exchange for their opinions. They’ve become increasingly strident in recent years whenever their output is similarly analyzed. They want to dish it out but most can’t take it.

            The more apt question is where does the “pay to go to work” argument end? There are still some critics who get out of town assignments. It is likely that the journal picks up the travel, hotel, and per diem costs and not the company being reviewed. So also it is reasonable that the journal pay for the cost of the ticket or better yet a subscription and then provide that ticket to the assigned critic.

  • CDH says:

    To Mr. Kirschner (Reply option removed): I think most of us pay for our own transportation, be it public or parking private cars. But as a critic I did not think of tickets as “freebies.” A few, but by no means all, houses or companies offered complimentary drinks to the press/media: that I would say was in the “freebie” class. Fewer nowadays, I daresay, with all the cutbacks. I have noticed that more recent press launches, which used to be cocktail affairs, are now coffee in the morning. I have no problem with that, and appreciate the gesture of offering coffee.

    Many lines of work offer all sorts of perqs. Drinks — and parking, if applicable (never, in my experience) would be among those for reviewers. Admission to the programme to be reviewed does not strike me that way.

    There might have been a question of the publication or media outlet being the one to pay for tickets once upon a time (though private radio and TV would clearly never have bothered) but even cash-strapped arts companies and houses are aware that nowadays newspapers are an endangered species, and even public broadcasting, the most likely to give airspace to the arts, is seriously underfunded. The benefits of consistent mention in the press/media through steady coverage, favourable or -un, has clearly been acceptable to arts organisations and the producing houses for a long time. So many houses have to be papered nowadays anyway — at least this way they get something in return.

    Restaurant critics observe anonymity because of the perceived danger of things being tailored to them and not necessarily being what is offered to the punters. There is no danger of that in public performance.

    • Harry Kirschner says:

      Mr/Ms CDH – You raise some good points. I agree that a restaurant critic may get preferential treatment and hence the anonymity. On the other hand, I believe performance spaces give critics the better seats for acoustics and sightlines. I can’t speak to press launches since I’ve no experience of them. My comments are in the context of public performances attended by critics.

      You write: “The benefits of consistent mention in the press/media through steady coverage, favourable or -un, has clearly been acceptable to arts organisations and the producing houses for a long time. So many houses have to be papered nowadays anyway — at least this way they get something in return. ”

      I think that’s the equation that has changed. They’re not to my knowledge preventing the two critics from attending or writing about performances, only that they’re not willing to extend perqs. It appears that the Opera company in question doesn’t perceive any value in relation to the cost of the ticket (or tickets if a guest were included) and any other courtesies.

      The SMH did the right thing in stating that they would not have their critic assigned for them by the Opera company and that the ticket would be covered one way or another. If the company interfered with journalistic access to soloists, guest artists, etc., then I’d agree there’s a major problem. I exclude regular members (employees) of orchestras, theatres, operas and the like since most U.S. companies now have regulations on who may speak with the press.

  • Thomas says:

    So let me get this straight.

    Harriet put her name to an article called “Why I’m not going to the Opera next year”… and now she’s upset because she won’t be receiving any more free tickets to the Opera?

    Why would she care if she wasn’t planning on going anyway?

    Doesn’t make much sense on the face of it.