Just in: Critic quits after newspaper bows to pressure and pulls his opera review

Just in: Critic quits after newspaper bows to pressure and pulls his opera review


norman lebrecht

May 17, 2016

Arthur Kapitainis is probably the most respected music critic in Canada.

Just not by the Canadian Opera Company.

When COC read his review for Mametto II online in the National Post they sent over a complaint to demand its removal (recte: two corrections). Unbelievably, the weak-kneed newspaper obliged. (see Comments below for COC account of events).

Arthur promptly resigned from the paper. Our friends at MusicalToronto have now published his review.

Read it here.


It’s not a particularly tough review. What glue are they sniffing at COC?

This is a major press freedom issue. Cancel the National Post until it apologises and beware of an opera company that is able to reduce national media to submission.

UPDATE: The COC’s side of the story.

CORRECTION: An initial version of the story said the COC sent a delegation to the Post. It was based on a trusted source and it was unfounded. We corrected the error as soon as we were informed, and regret its occurrence.



  • Milka says:

    Better off going to the wonderful Toronto Opera Atelier than wasting time
    on Canadian Opera Co . who haven’t had an original thought since Podles.

    • Milu says:

      Podles as Cesar might have been a beguiling ‘curiosity’, but does something piquant and ‘different’ necessarily brings one closer to the music? Do so called ‘ original’ thoughts always foster greater connections with the work? Milka seems to have mistaken experiment with experience. What Milka advocates, is the intellect, and a craving for sensations. Isn’t the goal of art always been a gravitation from complexity towards simplicity, which in its fundamental sense directs attention to the depths and collect them into a unity? Attention is spontaneous, born of thought feeling and wisdom, as a result of which we the audience get our experience, regardless. Curiosity only results in imitation and experimen. That a choice is interesting does not always guarantee artistic value. Milka, get your aesthetics right.

      • Milka says:

        Milu’s polemic does not hold . To assume “art” in itself has a goal is to misunderstand
        the nature of creativity .What we call “art ” has no goal . Milu does go on , but all is
        based on some faulty uninformed premise on what he believes to be “art” and its goals .

        • Milu says:

          Creativity is allowing oneself to experiment, to make mistakes. Art is knowing which one to keep. Anyone who penetrates deeply into the mystery and meaning of creation, finds at its heart a purity -the essence. Those who don’t, have no idea where to start looking!

          • Milka says:

            You certainly do come up with the strangest baloney …but whatever turns you on .
            My original observation being Opera Atelier is far more interesting and musically
            rewarding than what goes on at the Canadian Opera Co.

  • Scott Cantrell says:

    This is a brilliant review, vividly descriptive, fair in its balance of positive and negative.

    Alas, further evidence of the demise of serious music criticism as we have known it. Arthur’s resignation follows Donald Rosenberg’s firing by the Cleveland Plain Dealer because the Cleveland Orchestra didn’t like his negative comments on Mr. Welser-Most.


    • John Kelly says:

      Agreed. Boy I wish this guy wrote for the NY Times. I might spend more time reading their reviews…..since the departures of the likes of Kozinn and Rockwell things have gone to chateau bow wow.

    • Frederick Hohman says:

      Great reply, Scott. I’m with you on this issue and I was happy to see your comment. It is almost impossible to find true and meaningful music criticism these days. In many smaller cities, such as the one I live in not far from Chicago, my opinion is that we have not seen true and free journalism in our establishment press for at least 25 years. Instead of meaningful reviews and occasional analysis, our classical music concerts seem to be both “previewed” and “reviewed” with a steady stream of puff pieces, extolling the musical careers of those who have gained the political favor of the social elite in the community. This converts the critic’s function to the realm where, as the folk song says, “seldom is heard a discouraging word.” It is as if the publicity departments are the schools, symphony and artist managements are writing all the reviews. I hope you get the picture. From my local perspective, this makes the censorship of the best critics in our major cities to be an even greater loss.

  • Tim Goode says:

    Strikes me as a perfectly reasonable and balanced review – one that would prepare or warn those who have tickets for future performances…

  • Jennifer Pugsley says:

    Dear Mr. Lebrecht,

    Below is a copy of my correspondence with Dustin Parkes at the National Post shortly after the review was posted, with the request for two errors in the review to be corrected as soon as possible.

    This is the sum total of the COC’s interaction with the Post on this issue.

    Jennifer Pugsley
    Media Relations Manager
    Canadian Opera Company

    From: Jennifer Pugsley
    Date: Wednesday, May 4, 2016 at 2:52 PM
    To: “Parkes, Dustin”
    Subject: RE: Corrections to Arthur Kaptainis Review of Maometto II

    Hi Dustin,

    Thank you for getting back to me so quickly. I really appreciate the swiftness of your response.

    Glad it works for you to come on another day to Maometto II. Since either of the Saturday shows work, I’ll put you down for two tickets this Saturday, May 7. The performance starts at 7:30 p.m. and the tickets will be waiting for you at the welcome desk. It’s really an exceptional show and the singing is out of this world.

    I’d love to talk ideas for digital content and completely hear what you’re saying about exploring photography or video for those types of stories. Opera is ideally suited for both mediums, especially with the productions and artists we have coming up next season.

    Let’s look at setting up a time to meet in June – me, you and my director of PR, Claudine Domingue? Our schedules are probably a bit more flexible than ours so take a look at your calendar and we can go from there with what works for you. Claudine and I are both away at the end of May and early June, but any day from June 9 onward will work for us.

    I look forward to talking with you and exploring what stories we could tell.

    All the best

    Jennifer Pugsley
    Media Relations Manager

    Canadian Opera Company
    227 Front St. E. Toronto, ON M5A 1E8
    E-mail: jenniferp@coc.ca
    Phone: 416-306-2303 Fax: 416-363-5584

    Visit coc.ca for listings for the Free Concerts Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.



    From: Parkes, Dustin [mailto:DParkes@postmedia.com]
    Sent: Wednesday, May 04, 2016 2:39 PM
    To: Jennifer Pugsley
    Subject: Re: Corrections to Arthur Kaptainis Review of Maometto II

    Oh, wow. I will take it down immediately, and wait until we have the time to adjust it to put it back up again. I would love to talk about coverage with you, and if I wasn’t in the middle of hiring two new people for my section, I would’ve tried to schedule something before this.

    I really hate running reviews for performing arts. They simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content. On the other hand, I really want to give attention to performing arts, especially for the best stuff this country is producing. I think the way to best do this, and get eyeballs on the content as well, is to emphasize the visuals being created, either through photography or video.

    Anyway, we can talk about that at a later date. I’ll have more time at the end of this month or early June to figure stuff out. And like I said, I’d love to work something out.

    I felt so badly about having to cancel my tickets to last week’s performance at the last minute, that I dare not ask for another opportunity. Honestly, it was a last minute thing for an assignment opportunity, and if I had known any sooner I would’ve let you know. But now that you’re offering, I’d love to see it. Either of the Saturday shows would work well for me. Whichever has more tickets available is absolutely fine, so I don’t put out the COC any more than necessary.

    Thanks Jennifer.

    From: Jennifer Pugsley
    Date: Wednesday, May 4, 2016 at 2:20 PM
    To: “Parkes, Dustin”
    Subject: Corrections to Arthur Kaptainis Review of Maometto II

    Hi Dustin,

    I hope you’re doing well. It was a pleasure to meet you the other week at Carmen. I’m sorry that work took you out of town last Friday and you had to cancel on Maometto II. It’s a thrilling production with extraordinary singing. Given the rarity with which the opera is performed, the COC’s presentation is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime level event. I would hate for you to miss out on experiencing it for yourself. There are still performances left on May 5, 7, 11 and 14. If you would like to attend one of those days, please let me know and I would be happy to put aside a pair of tickets for you.

    Speaking of Maometto II, there are some errors in Arthur Kaptainis’ review of the production that I need to point out and ask to have corrected.

    The first is a misrepresentation of a scene in the opera involving Anna in Act II when she is brought into Maometto II’s tent. Arthur’s review describes the moment as “When she removes this encumbrance she is treated to a striptease by a nearby ballerina. I wish I could tell you why.”

    There is no way that the dancer could be considered a ballerina. She’s clearly a belly dancer. As to Arthur’s point of not understanding the moment, that’s his opinion. The music at that point of the opera is clearly meant to invite dancing and reference materials, specifically the notable Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book (best encyclopedic account of operas), describe this scene as “In Maometto’s tent, Muslim girls try to get Anna to enjoy her youth.”

    The second error has to do with a photo attributed to the wrong photographer. Attached is the image in question. It should be credited to photographer Gary Beechey but in the online review is credited to Michael Cooper. We have multiple photographers shooting our dress rehearsals.

    I hope these mistakes can be corrected as soon as possible.

    I have to confess that Arthur’s reviews continue to baffle many of us at the COC. His opinion is his opinion, and he’s entitled to it, all we ask for from our critics is a fair and open-minded consideration of what we present on our stage. It’s becoming more and more challenging to see that kind of thoughtfulness in his reviews. This is a sentiment that we’ve pointed out to your predecessors. While we are coming to the end of the COC’s 15/16 season, the way opinions are expressed in this latest review make me want to flag the matter with you sooner rather than later.

    If there’s an opportunity to discuss the matter more thoroughly with you, we would welcome it. Perhaps we could find a time over the summer or in the fall, before the opening of the COC’s 16/17 season, for a coffee or lunch to talk? If all our schedules could be aligned, it would be great to introduce you to the COC’s general director, Alexander Neef, to hear straight from him about the artistic programming at the company and some of the projects and artists coming to the COC stage on the horizon.

    All the best,

    Jennifer Pugsley
    Media Relations Manager

    Canadian Opera Company
    227 Front St. E. Toronto, ON M5A 1E8
    E-mail: jenniferp@coc.ca
    Phone: 416-306-2303 Fax: 416-363-5584

    Visit coc.ca for listings for the Free Concerts Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.



    • Andy says:

      Dustin Parkes: “I really hate running reviews for performing arts.”

      Some recent articles (titles and subtitles) by Dustin Parkes (http://news.nationalpost.com/author/parkesdu):
      -Train recorded a version of Led Zeppelin II, will release it without ‘Not suitable for any living thing’ warning: No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.
      -Haute is hot: Non-formal will eventually mean walking around in public wrapped in a Snuggie
      -Fifty Shades Of Grey taught us to never believe the hype: Perhaps the only thing more impressive than its ability to not “turn on” any libido is that despite all the watchdog groups with awkward acronyms publicly protesting the film’s release
      -Could Chewbacca and Darth Vader actually be allies? Darth Vader and Chewbacca are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to good and evil, so why would one give the other a lift to vote in an election in Ukraine?
      -Justin Bieber has controversial ideas about tacos: ‘If you go to Taco Bell, that doesn’t make you a taco’

      Keep lowering that bar, Dustin!

    • Andy says:

      Oh, and posting an email exchange like this? Badly, badly done, Jennifer. Amateur.

  • john Niles says:

    I saw this production at Santa Fe and I enjoyed it. The piece is a bit long but it was well sung and executed musically. The Alden Brothers are like the little girl with the curl. When a good they are very good and when they are bad, they horrible, either one of them. In this case, Alden was good. Very good. Not always the case, but here I like it. And the review was a rather tepid one. So why fire this guy? What a bunch of spineless wimps

    • Brian B says:

      I saw the production in Santa Fe as well and I would not have recognized it through the eyes of this critic. While modern parallels are inescapable, in no way was the production heavy-handed or specifically tied to ISIS or al qaeda, etc. The work, long as it is, is also a powerful musical drama of a clash of cultures, divided loyalties, and possible responses to aggression and “lost causes.” Ottocento Italian opera librettos are often replete with cliches but in this case, as with Verdi, the music made one entertain the dilemmas and choices people can and do make seriously. Google “death
      before dishonor” and you will realize many react with anything but snide cynicism in 2016.
      I was frankly baffled by Kapitainis’s review and reaction to both Rossini and Alden’s production. Unless Alden has significantly changed it from Santa Fe.
      But in no way should the review have been pulled.

  • Steve Kelley says:

    Here is what actually happened: the COC sent email to the National Post to correct two errors in review and ask for meeting at future date . The editor wrote back with apology and accepted meeting idea. This is the sum total of our interaction with the Post on this issue.
    Steve Kelley
    Chief Communications Officer Canadian Opera

    • Andy says:

      And now social media has labelled the National Post and the Canadian Opera Company farcical. Which is absolutely accurate. Spin doctor this to death; Laurel and Hardy , er, I mean Dustin and Jennifer screwed up big time. Toronto The Good? Try Toronto the Hapless. You guys deserve the Maple Leafs.

  • Sam Truax says:

    @Steve Kelley, @Jennifer Pugsley Thank you for the clarification. However, according to this correspondence, you are still planning a time to get together and discuss the work performance of a very well respected critic. That seems highly inappropriate.
    Fortunately Dustin turns it into a meeting to discuss a more robust (multimedia advertising) coverage of the COC.
    You don’t have to like what a critic has to say but they are ‘opinions’ as you mention above and the only real error here is the improper photographic attribution. If Mr. Kapitainis did not grasp the significance of the belly dancer and did not even recognize that she was a belly dancer then maybe its time to rethink either the costume or the way that part is being performed.

    • Yes Addison says:

      I hope this part just reflects the direction of one paper and isn’t a chilling harbinger for the future of arts coverage: “I really hate running reviews for performing arts. They simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content. On the other hand, I really want to give attention to performing arts, especially for the best stuff this country is producing. I think the way to best do this, and get eyeballs on the content as well, is to emphasize the visuals being created, either through photography or video.”

      What would be the next step? “I also really hate running movie reviews. Let’s just augment the actual ads with puff pieces that might as well be ads, emphasizing the special effects.”

  • Alexandra Ivanoff says:

    First of all Ms. Pugsley is impressively pro-active. Brava to her.

    Secondly, it appears there are forces behind the scenes that are nudging the publication to take some politically correct actions. Whether or not the reviewer is accurate in his description of what took place in that production is immaterial; mistakes happen all the time and corrections are made, in most publications, accordingly. But the way Kapitainis described the director’s updating of the action to contemporaneous ongoing east-west issues might possibly be an internal red flag to some local organizations.

    I’m used to that because I was a music critic in Istanbul for seven years. I reviewed a local production of “Maometto II” which was featured in the Istanbul Opera Festival in 2010. Mehmet II is one of the historical Sultans held in great esteem for his political and military influence as a Sultan with a bit more humanitarian consciousness than many of the others. Thus, Rossini portrays him more as a sympathetic character than one whose focus is primarily combat and dominance. His tender love duets with Anna attest to this.

    This director’s choice to include possible ISIS references, burkas, and belly dancing (which is of north African origin, not Turkish, and was enjoyed by Sultans only in the privacy of their harems) are politically imbued comments that may raise an inflammatory flag in these particularly tense times of immigration and integration of millions of Muslim refugees into Western cultures.

    So the action of pulling the review is either a) an odd way of correcting easily correctible errors b) a decision of a politically over-sensitive committee which is protecting itself from a local anti-defamation league.

    Americans say: “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” Perhaps this whole mini-debacle du jour promotes the whole show anyway. And that’s a good thing for opera — even if some anti-defamation group starts protesting in the streets.

  • Clarke Bustard says:

    “I really hate running reviews for performing arts. They simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content.”

    Does that remark from the newspaper editor reveal the context behind the spiking of the review? More trouble than it was worth, from the editor’s perspective? (It was, at least, remarkably indiscreet – editors usually refrain from telling outside interested parties that coverage goes unread.)

    We, of course, don’t know the larger context. What’s the high-performing digital content of this publication? What kind of traffic does non-review arts coverage generate? How does readership of arts reviews compare that for other specialist commentary or for editorials? Are readers interested in arts reviews reading them in print rather than online? (Likely, I’d say, as the “high art” audience skews older.)

    Outside the very largest cultural centers, there’s a long-standing indecision at newspapers on how to handle fine-arts coverage. Should it treated as promotion – akin to coverage of charities or community amenities such as festivals and parades – or given the kind of critical assessment that papers generally provide for popular entertainment for paying customers, such as sports, books, movies and restaurants?

    When I look at newspapers (and I haven’t looked at The National Post), I compare the way they cover fine arts and sports. If they take a more critical view of sports than of arts, then I conclude they don’t consider arts to be a journalistic subject.

  • P says:

    As she herself revealed, the Media Relations Manager of Canadian Opera Company wrote to the National Post to tell the editor that at Canadian Opera Company they don’t like the reviews of Mr Kapitainis, not enough enthusiastic for their tastes (even though he waxed lyrical over most of the singers in this review), and she asked a meeting to “discuss THE MATTER”. The editor answered that, were it for him, he would gladly stop publishing reviews at all, since they create troubles and nobody reads them. No wonder Mr Kapitainis decided to leave the newspaper and find another one.

  • Bruce says:

    The only revision in the revised review is the the redaction of the four sentences in bold below (previous sentence included for context):

    “Anna enters in Act 2 blindfolded – this being the conceptual inversion of the full-dress burkas in which Maometto’s concubines are clad. When she removes this encumbrance she is treated to a striptease by a nearby ballerina. I wish I could tell you why. Obviously an attack by Muslims on a Christian stronghold creates an opportunity for point-making that few contemporary directors would be inclined to forgo. But those points must be coherently made.

    He seems to me to be making a perfectly valid point. If the director expected the audience to understand what he was getting at, Kaptainis is saying “Well, I was in the audience, and I didn’t get it.”

    Equally important, he makes his point of view clear, so that someone reading the review who hasn’t seen the show could make an informed decision that they themselves might love it. What I got from his review, for example, was: “Some good singing; an opera I don’t know by a composer I love (there are always some hidden gems, or at least chances to enjoy more singing); some great singing; some silly stage business that I don’t have to worry about; some pretty decent singing; very good conducting.” If I lived in Toronto, I would probably go.

    (His quibble about people being insistent on “death before this latest inconvenience” is a bit of a cliché in itself; people have been complaining about the unrealistic conventions of opera for well over a century. Oh, people don’t normally insist on death before dishonor? Well, guess what. People don’t “normally” sing about their problems, either! It’s an opera!)

  • Elizabeth Dobie-Sarsam says:

    Could it be that he’s actually seen a belly dancer and the professionally, ballet trained dancer who was assigned to do the belly dancing, probably a fit thin girl,15-20 kilos lighter than any belly dancer usually is, didn’t quite pull it off?

  • David says:

    Ms. Pigsley is well within her rights to request a correction of the photography credit but everything else commented on, and requested, by her is out of bounds in my opinion. If she wishes to express her opinions an editorial comment to the op ed section of the paper I see no problem with that. But to ask the editor in a direct email to make the changes she requested violates freedom of press and the paper should not have responded with any action other than the photographer correction