A musicologist gently castigates NY Times music chief

A musicologist gently castigates NY Times music chief


norman lebrecht

August 10, 2016

Zachary Woolfe, classical music editor of the New York Times, wrote a heated review last month of a Mozart opera at a festival in France. The article provoked a noted Mozart authority, Professor Ralph P. Locke, to send a dissenting letter to the Times, questioning the extent of Woolfe’s knowledge of Mozart. The Times did not publish it.

So Professor Locke has circulated the letter, none too privately. He makes several good points. Not fit to print in the Times, apparently.

cosi aix


To the Editor of the Arts Section (New York Times): 

Zachary Woolfe (Sunday, July 17, Can a Tool of Power Bring Change?) proposes that operas from earlier eras were a “tool of [elite] power.” An opera house today, he feels, is morally bound to alter works substantially—or to replace them with new works—in order to “make reparations” for the damage that those works have done over the centuries. His examples include operas by Mozart.

The Abduction from the Seraglio—Woolfe claims—“makes comedy out of sex slavery [in Turkey].” But comedy can take many forms. In Blonde’s duet with her captor Osmin, the Englishwoman undermines—through sharp-witted verbal and musical ridicule of her self-appointed “master”—his smug demand that a mere “slave-woman” obey his every wish. Here comedy is put to the service of social critique. More generally, Mozart’s operas are attuned to the evils of male privilege and domination, whether in Europe (as in Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro) or elsewhere (as inAbduction and The Magic Flute).

As for slavery generally, a notable scene in Abduction is omitted from most productions. It involves a “mute black man” who is apparently a slave. His situation is not treated at all comically. The Magic Flute contains two remarkable spoken scenes (likewise rarely included) in which three male slaves—apparently Egyptian—complain bitterly about their cruel slave-driver, Monostatos. And yet, despite their sufferings, the slaves show empathy for the captive (and “white”) princess Pamina.

Great operas are often richer in nuance and complexity than commentators—and certain strongly interventionist stage directors—seem to realize.

Ralph P. Locke
Clarksburg, Maryland
(professor emeritus, Eastman School of Music)


  • Olassus says:

    Well, the New York Times really could have published that. In the past such reasonable letters often appeared on arts topics.

    Separately, the NYT’s emphatic bias in this year’s presidential race is undermining its stature. To get a straight picture these days, one must go to several different sites as there no longer exists any journalism “of record.”

    • Natus says:

      Olassus, are you trolling this blog? Leave the election out of the discussion, please, because *your* evident bias makes anything else you have to say very questionable indeed.

      • Steven Holloway says:

        Olassus is making an observation re the general quality of the NY Times, and pinpointed an aspect thereof that many of us have noticed. There is nothing trollish about that. As they didn’t publish this valuable letter about opera, I might also note the decimation of their book review section. Others might make other comments in the same vein. All together, they depict the decline of a once-great newspaper in which one could once have had a large measure of confidence.

      • alan thompson says:

        Olassus is exactly correct, NYT has been thoroughly corrupted and is a shadow of its former self. The magnificent building in Times Square should be turned into artist space and perhaps a homeless shelter. Their product is almost completely irrelevant, such is the predictable slant that presents like a noxious stench. It is no surprise that self importance, misleading writing and sloppy editing from the contrite to the complicit bleeds through in their pronouncements on the arts as well

  • John Borstlap says:

    Prof. Locke is damn right, and could have written with a sharper pen.

    The claim that operas from earlier eras were a tool of [elite] power, i.e. merely instruments of suppression, and that an opera house today would be morally bound (!) to alter works substantially—or to replace them with new works—in order to “make reparations” for the damage that those works have done over the centuries, is so idiotic as to invite mere head shaking about such ignorance and silly prescriptions. These ideas, products of entirely misconceived leftwing ‘idealism’, political postcolonial guilt and the egalitarian world view which sees works of art as mere weapons of class warfare, are attempts to destroy the best that Western culture has come-up with, instead of criticizing the real evil at the heart of every society. It is suicidal populism, disguised as social critique. Mr woolfe, apparently a dinosaurian fossile from those hip sixties, obviously has no cultural awareness, let alone understanding of classical music, and seems to want to replace competence with quasi-moralistic preaching. It is shocking that the NY Times keeps such minor Savoranola on the payrol in the service of ‘art criticism’ and does not want to publish such polite correction from a professional side.

    • Brian B says:

      Ironically, from the evidence, Mr. Woolfe brooks no opposition and the Times refuses to publish Locke’s riposte which I find more than slightly fascistic. Oh irony!
      I agree with Professor Locke’s references to the character of Blonde. The fact that she even exists and has lines promoting proto-feminist liberty and the equality of women is a significant artifact of the Enlightenment and could not have been produced by any other culture then, indeed not even now in many parts of the world.

    • David Grandis says:

      Superb comment, bravo !

    • Lindsay Groves says:

      Thanks, John Borstlap! I agree. I started a chamber music concert series and was sent an editorial from The Nation, on the subject of the “elitism” demonstrated by chamber music performance, since they are necessarily only for small audiences, and often take place in pastoral settings, that is, outside of cities. Mozart operas are timeless, and should be performed in both traditional and non-traditional ways. Attacking these great art forms on these grounds is complete B-S! The NYT has lost its way. I hope another newspaper will take its place.

  • Scott Rose says:

    I read eight different French-language reviews of the Seraglio in question; not a single one found the production appropriate.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The moment one begins to write in French, a lot of things suddenly begin to seem quite inappropriate.

  • David Boxwell says:

    We should ban, or substantially alter (to take a few examples to start with):

    Peter Grimes and Death in Venice (sympathetic to pedophelia)
    Il Trovatore (sensationalistic infanticide)
    Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto (infantilized women)
    Das Rheingold, Rigoletto (insulting to non-conforming body types)
    Il Mondo della Luna (disrespecting mental illness)

  • Scott says:

    It seems that Marxism has invaded music criticism.

    • Michael Endres says:

      These were exactly my thoughts.

    • Brian B says:

      As a friend of mine suggested, postiively neo-Maoist. Pretty frightening.

    • Michael Miller says:

      I wouldn’t say Marxism as much as the cant of the undergraduates who have been militantly censoring the curricula and lectures of their professors. It seems some people would like to see opera houses equipped with safe rooms, stuffed animals, and crayons.

  • Michael Miller, Editor, New York Arts says:

    Professor Locke’s letter is now officially published on New York Arts, at


    I must confess that his civilized tone inspired me to cut some vigorous invective out of my introduction to the letter.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Look….. a very civil and just gesture. One wonders, though, how such a letter could possibly invoke some ‘vigorous invective’.

      Mr Woolfe’s deplorable review is not the only misconceived burb in the NY music scene, there must be something in the air that stimulates critics’ misunderstandings of the art of music:


    • Steven Holloway says:

      I am very pleased to be able to read Prof. Locke’s letter. I’m very pleased indeed that you, as the papers arts editor, restrained yourself when tempted to use “vigorous invective”. John Borstlap has dealt with one of my reasons for that relief. The other is that if that letter were published in an academic journal, it would be considered an ethical transgression to precede the letter (or article, which it could certainly be rewritten as) with your own, the editor’s, reply. I’m a bit stunned by the arrogance of that, but then I am a retired academic. Your ‘introduction’ should have been a totally neutral three or four lines.

      • Michael Miller, Editor, New York Arts says:

        New York Arts is not a peer-reviewed academic journal, but an arts journal directed at a general audience of enthusiasts, participants, and…yes academics. The introduction is intended to make the subject accessible to an educated reader, whose primary interest may lie in the visual arts or theater. It was read by Prof. Locke before publication, and he approved it enthusiastically.

        • John Fallas says:

          I think Steven Holloway has misunderstood. “New York Arts” is not the NY Times Arts section, but an entirely independent site. The introduction to the letter seems rather favourable to Locke. Presumably the ‘vigorous invective’ would have been against Woolfe …

          • Michael Miller says:

            And I misunderstood as well. I thought that Steven Holloway objected to my introduction per se, which was more neutral than I would have liked it, in favor of Prof. Locke’s letter. I thought that Woolfe’s articles spoke for themselves and that it was unnecessary explain that my repressed invective would have been directed at the spreading decline in the quality in the coverage of classical music in the daily and weekly press. Perhaps I should have let go with it…but the message here is from Prof. Locke, not me.

            Indeed New York Arts has no connection with the New York Times. I launched The Berkshire Review for the Arts in 2007 and then New York Arts in 2011 for the purpose of filling in the gap left by the serious reduction of space devoted to classical music, opera, and all the arts in the traditional press, the dismissal and reassignment of arts contributors, and the decline of quality, as inexpert writers were hired to replace them. Online publishing offers unlimited space, and it has been possible to offer readers something even better than the medium we were replacing…to the best of our abilities, of course. Today, as you all know well, there are many other online resources.

  • Andrew Rudin says:

    For me, whether an opera is staged adhering faithfully (what does that mean?) to the instructions, time, and place given in the score, or moved to another era, and overlaid with another “concerpt”, I’m first of all concerned if whether the production somehow LOOKS the way the music SOUNDS. I can’t conceive of anyone listening to the Overture to COSI (and why must we always now stage these transitions from the mundane world to that of the theatre?) and saying, ‘Yeah, that sounds like someone being raped to me.’

  • Mon coeur s'oeuvre a ta voix says:

    Part of the problem of the misapprehension of what opera is or should be about is an unsophisticated understanding of the nature of relevance and of “political correctness”; another part is sheer intellectual lazinesss on the part of the producers and directors. I have commented before about the on-stage bomb explosions that accompanied the orchestral beheadings at the end of “The Dialogues Of the Carmelites.” We need to be aware today of intentions that had to remain hidden because of contemporary history, or politics, or censorship. If opera is not relevant in itself, why do it? Prof. Locke’s comments suggest how opera works best when it is truly timeless, and how falsifications of its honest means or intentions are a disservice to our own difficult times. I could go on, but I don’t want to take advantage of the readers’ indulgence. I will only add that the American press is so polemical nowadays that the greater part of one’s day is occupied with trying to assemble random titbits into a constantly morphing coherent picture (Sisyphus had a word for it). As for Mr Woolfe, he is hardly a child of the ’60s, having been born in 1984 (sic!).

  • herrera says:

    1) First, I don’t understand the tempest in the teapot here: Nothing in Locke’s letter (as excerpted above) contradicts Woolfe’s claims (as quoted by Locke); if anything, Locke expands on Woolfe.

    2) Getting published in the print version of the NYT is not a right. One doesn’t get to be immortalized in print forever just because one has an informed opinion. Half of New York academia has an informed opinion.

    3) Finally, opera is not sacred text, deviating from it shouldn’t get one stoned for apostasy. Opera is entertainment, especially Mozart, albeit high culture entertainment. Nonetheless, yes, if I had to choose between Mozart’s politically incorrect genius versus some director’s politically correct garbage, give me the original Mozart any day.

    • John Borstlap says:

      1) In contrary, Woolfe suggests that ‘old’ operas fail to address contemporary political and social problems – contemporary of our own time, that is – and that the genre is merely an instrument of elite suppression. Locke shows that Mozart’s operas were NOT instruments of suppression, and in fact: Don Giovanni cost him the support of the aristocratic elite of Vienna.

      2) Recent research has shown that 37,5% of the overall population of Manhatten (including commuters but except the Bronx) cultivates informed opinions about all subjects, with 18,7% limiting their opinions to shopping, cooking and toilet mores; 23,2% have no opinions because they transfer information in educational contexts, while 16% are too busy to have opinions, not even about their own work; the rest of 4,6% sleep in the underground and restrict their conversation exclusively to contemporary opera production but offer no opinion. And then there is the superfluous 13,5% of people who did not understand the questions.

      3) Classical music – of which opera is a subgenre – is not entertainment, although it forms a part of it; calling it entertainment is attacking the genre as art and undermines any justification to be funded.

  • Caralynn says:

    Herrera is right.

    Opera as an entertainment changes nothing and never has, though the fans like to think so. There are countless millions who never heard or saw an opera and live quite fulfilled lives.

  • Mike Schachter says:

    The NYT is increasingly worthless. On can only hope for its demise, or the replacement of its editors by individuals of sense and integrity. It is enough to give PC stupidity and even worse name. On a non-artistic note, one of its recent editorials criticised the French government because most of the raids since the November terrorist attacks have been in Muslim areas. Clearly to avoid the great sin of stereotyping they should target other groups who are most certainly not involved.

  • Mark Shulgasser says:

    Certainly opera is no less a tool of elite power today than ever. The political message of any production is to a great extent irrelevant. The medium is the message. It’s amusing to see people wealthy enough to fly round the world chasing after the most expensive, lavish and prestigious productions, who flatter themselves as progressives when they enjoy a politically radical interpretation.

    • Laurier says:

      Opera is such a broad term as to be almost meaningless.

      “Opera” as a term covers such a vast range of diverse works composed over lets say 400 years. To talk about “opera” as though it was just one thing is ridiculous. What connection is there between Italian opera and Janacek, for instance? I never liked Italian opera or classical opera in my youth, but two of the most stunning musical experiences of my whole life were of modern operas, Hindemith’s Mathis de Mahler, (and if you don’t like sentimental love stories how does an extended musical shout of rage against the rise of Hitler strike you) and Busoni’s Doktor Faust.

      We are asked to lump together works whose origins may have been elitist or popular. Monteverdi’s Orfeo written for an elite audience so that his patron could demonstrate his wealth and then his Coronation of Poppea written for a public theatre. Same composer different audience. How to compare these works with for example Stockhausen’s Mittwoch performed in a disused factory?
      What do we mean by popular entertainment? In the past the motivation for writing has been a mixture of commercial money making and artistic endeavour. No-one was interested in writing things that people didn’t want to see. Wealthy individuals with their own motivations have always been part of the process of bring operas to stage. Wagner would never have been able to write without extensive subsidy from Ludwig et al. Now we have other sources of funds with the state lending a hand on occasion.
      People go to the opera for many different reasons. I am amazed by what I hear people say after performances I have been to. Although for me the Operas I see and listen to provide deep spiritual nourishment I can see that other people get other things from it. I really take issue with the idea that there is one thing that Opera is meant to be. Like all rich experiences it can be appreciated in many ways. I wish that more people could get past what people say about opera and just see and listen to a few of them.

      • John Borstlap says:

        When we say ‘furniture’, it is very clear what is meant by the term, even if there exist an extremely wide range of types of furniture, including its history….. ‘Opera’ is the indication of a genre of stage craft combined with music, no reason to think the term is meaningless.

        The attraction of opera is, that the audience watches ‘real’ situations on stage, the ‘outside’ of something, and the music takes them into the ‘inside’ of what happens on the stage, thereby creating an emotional involvement not offered by pure theatre or pure music. This inner, emotional involvement is only possible if the music, depicting the ‘inside’ of the plot, is capable of expressing emotional states. With this description, a lot of attempted opera since WW II can be considered to be not opera but something else – maybe, theatre accompanied by sound. And the description perfectly fits all the operas of Monteverdi, Mozart, Beethoven’s Fidelo, Rossini, Donnizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Debussy’s Pelléas, Janacek’s operas, Bartok’s Bluebeard, etc. All works where the music fulfills its function admirably, in very different ways.

    • Claren says:


      A brief question.

      Do you strongly agree or strongly disagree with this statement?

      “Opera’s musical content is able to stand on its own, quite well, for vast numbers of people. It is neither alpha nor omega but it is miles ahead of any other elements”

      • Londontier says:


        I would say if you are talking about an opera that is a masterpiece, then the musical content can stand on its own apart and well ahead of other elements of the opera. Some might disagree saying the music is wedded too strongly to the libretto, production and other factors, but consider that in the old days of the LP, you could only hear the music and presumably you followed the story by reading the libretto as you listened. Budget recordings of operas sometimes came with no libretto but you could enjoy the recording nonetheless: you couldn’t see the singers or production, and didn’t have the libretto, but the music had the power to sweep you along anyway.

        Some purists may insist that an opera is nevertheless greatly weakened when presented in a concert performance, but couldn’t I argue that they should therefore believe that a Schubert or Mozart Mass should be performed as part of an actual Mass?

        • John Borstlap says:

          I cannot think of one single opera that has become part of the repertoire that has weak / uninteresting music, even if the plot is fascinating and the staging possibilitites infinite.

          An opera with weak music and a strong libretto is a theatre play with added music to it, music that can be missed. And if the play in itself is not interesting, the thing disappears anyway because it has to compete with strong theatre plays in existence.

          Sometimes, where an existing theatre play has been taken by the composer as a libretto (with or without cuts), the play only survives as part of the opera because of the music: Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy, Salome by R. Strauss.

          Numerous operas in the repertoire suffer from flaws in the libretto, but these flaws are endured because of the music.

          So, on an empirical basis, I would say that the heart of the genre is the music, which illuminates the plot / libretto from inside, so to speak. THAT is the great attraction of opera.

          • Linares47 says:

            Opera, by definition, includes music. Opera without music is just theatre, if it isn’t just sacred representation or whatever. But opera in which the music can speak for itself without a dramatic aspect is, in effect, a concert, if it isn’t
            just liturgy or whatever.

            Your ‘simple’ question invites a simple answer. But a simple answer would betray the irreducably hybrid nature of the medium. Opera is musicalized theatre, or it is dramatised singing and playing, or it is enhanced liturgy. But it isn’t music pure and simple!

            I hope that helps – and please forgive the didactice tone.

  • Pierpaolo Polzonetti says:

    I entirely agree with Ralph Locke’s comments. Too often modern interpreters are unable to read Mozart’s operas without drying out their fertile ambiguity. The same opera is either labelled as progressive or conservative. The case of Le nozze di Figaro is instructive. Last year Martha Nussbaum wrote in the program notes of the Chicago Lyric production that the opera is “a precursor of the French Revolution.” Nicholas Till, conversely, wrote in his Mozart and the Enlightenmnent, that “Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s operas are unrevolutionary, even conservative, works.” The problem is that Mozart’s operas cannot be understood using political categories forged after the French Revolution in terms of class, gender, and race struggles. Mozart’s operas represent abuse, injustice, violence, but they also allow their audience, each one of us, to form our own judgment and apply our own ideas and moral standards to interpret what is represented. It is for this reason that still today commentators disagree so much about these operas. The problem of modern productions is that they often censure the works, impose an interpretation through stage directions that contradict the stage indications in the libretto, ‘translate’ the libretto with cleansed supertitles, etc. In short, they make these works say what they want them to say, which is not the same as interpreting them.
    [Pierpaolo Polzonetti]

  • Scott Rose says:

    Something I see, is that The New York Times overall is turning into a circle jerk of left wing stupidity.

    One example from the news and opinion side of the paper. In December, 2015, Iranian President Rouhani held an Islamic Unity Conference in Teheran attended by over 300 Muslim leaders from different countries. They obsessed against Israel — and then Rouhani’s grand conclusion to the conference was that Muslims had to improve the image of Islam by uniting to eliminate Israel.

    The Times did not report at all on Rouhani’s conference. Then, just days after the conference ended, the Times’ Roger Cohen published a column in which he praised Rouhani’s “diplomatic style.”

    That know-nothing Weltanschauung is of a piece with thinking that The Abduction from the Seraglio — by the critic’s own confession “a fulfilling work of art,” its score “lively and brilliant” — is so political reprehensible that “it can be hard to know whether it’s even performable today.”

    The critic appears not to understand that The Abduction from the Seraglio is a Singspiel, an opera genre with its own distinct traditions. In his view, those traditions must be ignored, and interventions performed so that the piece is politically redeemed. It is as unhelpful and boring a view as would be a claim that because Fragonard’s “The Swing,” doesn’t depict existential angst, a present-day artist must make a black Magic Marker X across it so that the painting becomes “relevant.”

    • John Borstlap says:

      “They obsessed against Israel — and then Rouhani’s grand conclusion to the conference was that Muslims had to improve the image of Islam by uniting to eliminate Israel.” What an incredible irony: together with terrorism, this anti-Israel hetze is only further besmearing any image of ‘islam’. (There is no ‘islam’, there are many different opinions of what it is, and no centrally-organized authority like the catholic pope.) Western reluctance to even mention such paranoia in the media is inspired by fear to rough some feathers of insane leaders, with which deals have to be made to avoid worse.

  • Gerald Martin says:

    I wonder what Woolfe thinks of Porgy and Bess.

  • Lindsay Groves says:

    Wouldn’t it be fun to let someone (nominations?) re-translate, in the direction of cleaning up, the surtitles of The Abduction? Place alternate ones below the stage, so you could choose to be offended or not, according to your mood? Or change them only for Tuesday night performances? Or do it online for people who want to bring iPads and read the titles at their seats? Might make for audience-wave laugh patterns. Certain people would have to go twice. This would be great.

    • Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix says:

      Yes! E.g., the Met’s Lulu flaunted some hilarious boners. Talk about twisting compositional intent! Shouldn’t some native speaker vet the translations before they are loosed on the hapless customers? Or are they hoping the textual tweaks will be masked by poor diction on stage??? NB: the floor vendors that were once as common as they are at sporting events today sold “libretti”, with all the words. And ice cream.

  • Andrew Appel says:

    The effort to “clean up” the fallacies and cruelties of older art is the same as airbrushing characters from a photo journalists work–it wants to rewrite history. The past has no responsibility for getting it all right, as we don’t have that responsibility either. We don’t have it all right. We hope we move towards a more humane open society and that we dehumanize fewer groups with each passing generation. We have some evidence of improvement..though probably not throughout the entire world. Do we soften Shylock and hide the antisemitism that flourished for so many centuries? Do we throw out so much middle ages song texts? Bach cantata texts? Burn Mozart and Beethoven letters?
    Keeping the full gamut of fine and not fine ideas in a masterpiece allows us to know the minds of the people who etched out our world with efforts towards beauty and “truth”, even if flawed.
    Are WE not charged with knowing history? With recognizing what is now acceptable and not? Are we not strong enough to hear the genius who in some way transcends so many weaknesses of his or her time to create something that speaks to us today?
    And what is universal? I am not a Christian however in looking at the Last Judgement or the ceiling the the Sistine Chapel, in gasping at the expression of Massacio and Donatello, in listening to the Matthew Passion I can hear the fundamental longings that connect us all no mater what guise they sport. The desire for meaning, grace, relief, love, and communication on a profound plane are the heart of our lives and the meat of art. And as we reach out to Mozart and Virgil, in their imperfection we might well recognize our own limitations, forgive the past for being imperfect, and love the past for teaching us how to reach for the better of thoughts and choices.

    • Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix says:

      Mr Appel’s eloquent comments (for which thanks!) resonate with Joyce DiDonato’s Commencement address at Juilliard in 2014 (which has been cited first in a recent listing of the 15 most influential Commencement addresses of our time — available on YouTube). She described a life in the arts as a life of service, in which the artist brings us to experience the depth and breadth of our own nature and our own common humanity. All the more reason to search out the heart and the core of what is to be portrayed by the artist(s), and not the gimmickry of nonce-labels.

  • Fred Kolo says:

    MEGO. That is short hand for “my eyes glaze over”. I attempted to read the muddled controversies following Mr. Locke’s fairly clear and to me unarguable points and again and again rather than being brought into a carefully reasoned or even just passionately personal discussion of one of our civilizations (dare I continue to use the word?) most fruitful art forms, I found myself in a sea of contentiousness and invective which seemed to have been drawn from our recent presidential election. How long will it take for the Times, its cirtics, most opera houses and perhaps Mozart himself to be added to the “overrated” list? Again and again it seems material with very little relevance to Mr. Locke’s original letter was being dragged laboriously across the floor. I’d like to thank Mr. Locke for his comments, and can only add that the Times gets dozens (hundreds?) more letters than they can possibly publish. I really have very little standing to comment here as I pretty much gave up on the Times about 30 years ago, and not exactly concurrently, gave up on going to the opera. I wish the furor it seems to still cause had some sense of relevance to our lives and culture.