Why critics split over new operas

Why critics split over new operas


norman lebrecht

August 26, 2015

Thoughtful piece by David Patrick Stearns in Philly.com on this summer’s two US operatic premieres.

Everyone raved over George Benjamin’s post-modern opera, Written on Skin. Stearns could not see the point.

Written on the Skin ? opera by George Benjamin

Most reviewers cavilled at Jennifer Higdon’s traditionalist Cold Mountain. Stearns liked it.

So why is that? Read here.


  • william osborne says:

    Music critics are often deeply occupied with a kind of civic boosterism for their cities. This is the purpose of his article, and of course, it leads to parochial views. Philadelphia ranks 168th in the world for opera performances per year, just behind Baku and Maribor. Stearns mighty metropolis is in reality an operatic Azerbaijan, or a metropolis on par with the second largest city of Slovenia. The views diverge because Philly must be promoted. Cheese steaks, anyone?

    So Stearns richly insists we just don’t understand the Hidgon because we didn’t find a misformatted score in a dumpster like he did. The problems with the opera’s talky libretto are thus overlooked, as are the larger difficulties facing opera as a whole (things Stearns should be writing about.) Perhaps he can look to other opera companies in Philly’s league like Hildesheim or Biel to find his great operas (ever heard of them.) Still, it’s rich to read about opera and dumpster diving. Perhaps that tells us something about the diverging perspectives too…

  • Just a member of the audience says:

    Aside from the New York Times (Zachary Woolf), most reviewers did not cavil, but were positive about Cold Mountain. The audience response was so positive, it lead to an extra unscheduled performance. It will also be presented for Philadelphia and Minnesota. So this opera has legs.

    I was moved by the work musically and dramatically and found the libretto poetic and far from “talky”. New operas come in various styles. And New York critics tend to be snotty about any work premiered elsewhere, especially if it lacks “spicy pungent harmonies”. The universe of critics and audiences in the US extends far beyond the Hudson. Thank goodness.

    • william osborne says:

      The additional performance was scheduled before the premiere. It was based on ticket sales, not audience response. This follows a pattern that operas and musicals sell well and tend to be more successful if they coat tail on the Hollywood publicity machine — especially for small time operations like the Philadelphia Opera or Santa Fe’s 2 month summer season.

  • Just a member of the audience says:

    Although of course not everything, ticket sales are an important barometer of the success of any performance. Nothing wrong for operas to be written for paying audiences not critics. And if there’s pre-performance buzz, what’s the problem? The audience at the Cold Mountain I saw was extremely enthusiastic.

    So Philadelphia and Santa Fe are “small-time” operations, because they put on a limited number of quality performances that play to packed houses? Does quantity make second rate German companies like Hildesheim and Biel big-time? The emphasis on quantity is ludicrous. Besides, because of the difference in size between many European and American opera houses, each performance in the US is generally attended by more people than each performance in Europe.

    I’ve attended a good performance of standard opera (Falstaff) at a state-supported opera house (Stockholm) that was barely 25% full. Can European state support continue if the audience for opera doesn’t exist? Should it?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Opera productions without audience interest but which are applauded by critics have no leg to stand on. A good opera is an opera with good music, libretto takes 2nd place. ‘Good music’ for opera means: music that is expressive of what is going-on on stage. If we talk about new opera, ‘good opera music’ autmatically points towards music rooted in the tonal tradition, which offers empirically-discovered ways of making opera work (and which can include quite some dissonance as Bartok’s Bluebeard and Berg’s Wozzeck demonstrate). Traditional new opera music does not necessarily mean: conventional, stale music…. and if Cold Mountain works for audiences, that means it is – to say the least – effective and possibly VERY good.

      Everybody who has tried to write an opera knows how difficult it is to bring such thing off successfully, i.e. effectively. (How many music critics have written effective operas?) There is an impressive history ot the genre which cannot be ignored and from which can be learned.

    • william osborne says:

      The average in Germany for attendance capacity is about 85% (as opposed to the Met’s 70%). And San Francisco and Chicago couldn’t find a public for a full season if they wanted to. The tickets are too expensive.

      The 85% number in Europe is a conscious goal because it allows for a balance between popularity and innovation. (They could do hokey Zefferelli type Puccini productions and reach 100% capacity if they wanted.) One should also note that ticket prices in most European houses is about one third to one fifth the price in the USA. The number of performances and the price of tickets are vitally important because it allows a wider demographic to participate in opera — and very importantly, in decent seats. I can get front row tickets in most German houses for $50 to $80 even in the best houses.

      This stands in great contrast to opera in the States which is largely by and for the wealthy and where the best seats are usually about $350 to $400. The patrician rituals at our larger houses are disgusting classism and an affront to the European view of social justice and responsibility. Santa Fe, whose rich local culture was long ago destroyed by wealthy second homers, is no exception.