Leading composer quits opera after spat with critics

Leading composer quits opera after spat with critics


norman lebrecht

April 09, 2018

Mark Anthony Turnage, unhappy at some of the reviews for his latest opera Coraline, says he will write no more.

He tweeted the decision, perhaps sardonically, to the Sunday Times critic Hugh Canning:

Hugh rose to the bait:

Cue for a mini-Twitter storm… read for yourselves by scrolling down the above exchange.



  • FS60103 says:

    “‘Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle, / Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article…”

  • FS60103 says:

    Artist gets disappointing review; throws toys out of pram. Not really news, though you’d have thought Turnage of all people had his head screwed on a bit more firmly. The most depressing thing about the ensuing exchanges has been the low calibre of the response from professional musicians. No attempt to address or engage with the criticisms of the opera itself, some of which (and I basically enjoyed it) seemed perfectly valid. Just attempts to question the motives of the critics, attempts to invalidate legitimate criticisms on a technicality, and the eternal Appeal to Authority: “only musicians are qualified to have an opinion on music”.

    In other words, the usual wounded-muso response to anything other than carefully managed PR, wreathed in cries “you were marvellous”. Actually, I credit Turnage with more savvy (not to say maturity) than a lot of his defenders – and strongly suspect that he was being tongue-in-cheek.

  • Rob says:

    Well in 69′ Maxwell Davies had people leaving the Albert Hall in droves with his post Bergian potboiler Worldes Blis. Yet he carried on turning out one masterpiece after another.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Ho ho…. that seems a bit over-generous.

      • Bob Priest says:

        Absolutely agreed on this. Max’s work is incredibly uneven, often waaaaay overly long & hopelessly grey. Sure, there are some fine pieces here & there but I personally believed he suffered from similar “diarrhea of the pen” that struck Milhaud, Bentzon, Villa-Lobos, Hovhaness & a few others that really should’ve put a cork in it at least half the time.

    • Mike Schachter says:

      If you say so

  • boringfileclerk says:

    To be honest, opera is a dead art form anyway. He’s smart to leave it behind him.

    • David R Osborne says:

      Ideal career path for a contemporary composer of opera. All mandatory fields.

      1. Study with the right people. Learn only the ‘chosen way’. Question nothing.

      2. Choose your approach from the approved list. Serial, Free Atonal, Spectral, Minimalist, there may be others, but check first that they have been properly registered with the avant-garde police. You can perhaps blur the lines a little between them, but no veering totally off the path if you don’t mind.

      3. It’s a really good idea to be influenced by Jazz, as long as it’s the particularly clever type of ‘art music’ jazz. You know, all that really modern stuff from the 50s and early 60s.

      4. Be sure to work with edgy and controversial themes. The seedier side of American contemporary culture is a great place to start. Soap operas, the porn-industry, drug-abuse, extreme sexual experimentation. The key here is that it must get the attention of the right people when they read it in a press release. Try at all times to be eye-catchingly relevant.

      5. Care nothing for the hopes and aspirations of audiences. Your work is certain to be far too advanced for them.The critics (the ones that matter) will love you except of course when they don’t. But if that happens ‘flip it’. Make a virtue of it, be controversial and loud about it as well. The words ‘Maverick Composer’ or ‘Iconoclast’ will serve you well.

      6. Enjoy it all while it lasts.

  • Sue says:

    Well, thank god for that is all I can say!!

  • James Levee says:

    Fine by me. Crank out a few symphonies, concertos and chamber works instead. I don’t care what you call ’em.

  • Anne says:

    Come on MA, grow a set. Are you really that thined skinned to let some critic chase you away from an entire genre? If you were a real artist, you would give a hoot!

    • John Rook says:

      Or wouldn’t give a hoot.

      • Anne says:

        Yes, “wouldn’t “ is what I meant. I hate my iPhone. Oh how I miss my blackberry!!! Thank you for the correction!

        • John Rook says:

          It’s funny how the Americans say, ‘I could care less’, when it’s exactly the opposite that’s intended. Did your iPhone impose transatlantic phraseology?

    • Mike Schachter says:

      Some of us might respond with saying of an old friend at university: I can scarcely contain my indifference

    • James says:

      My experience of artists who are also my friends finds every last one of
      them anything but indifferent to what is said of them, in or out of print.
      Some more than others, naturally, but rage, depression, offense easily taken,
      advanced self importance are part of the lethal confection of creativity.

      Irrational, excessive, looney, silly…prehaps But that’s how it is.

      • david alden says:

        I missed Coraline — but I compelled to say that Turnage has already given us, in Greek, The Silver Tassie, and Anna Nicole, three brilliant contemporary works which have reached audiences all over the world and contributed to opera as a living experience. As an artist I know how you can be temporarily knocked off-course by negative reviews. Let’s hope this amazing composer moves on (in my experience the bad feelings last at the most 2 or 3 days) and gives us more great music theater — he need not call it opera…

        • David R Osborne says:

          Well you would say that wouldn’t you? An ‘everything’s great’ statement coming from somebody whose personal interests are of course served by creating that impression.

          But David, thanks at least for joining the conversation. So while we have you, opera as we know it today is only a ‘living experience’ for the privileged, the curious and the affectatious. And perhaps (with reservations) for those who love the music and drama of the great works of the past so much that they are able to close their eyes to the scourge of Regietheater. Don’t be fooled by the odd full house, and for pete’s sake stop believing your own spin.

          Opera today is one sick puppy, and no amount of trading off the success of a very popular children’s book and film (Coraline), or profiting goulishly off of somebody’s recent personal tragedy (Anna Nicole), is going to change that.

  • Sharon says:

    Seems to me that reviews determine the size of the audience which ultimately determines the amount of the future commissions. Apart from hurt feelings poor reviews may mean that a composer has to leave a certain genre just for financial reasons in some cases

    • David R Osborne says:

      Not really how it works Sharon.

    • FS60103 says:

      Well, since the entire run was sold out before it opened, I’m fairly confident that this wasn’t the case here.

      But generally these days, the composer will get a substantial fee for the commission entirely independent of box office income. The financial risk is carried by the promoter. Bad reviews might possibly reduce the likelihood of future commissions – but not, I suggest, as much as declaring that you’ve quit writing operas.

      As a footnote: at least 2/3 of the reviews of Coraline were positive, and many were highly enthusiastic. Thanks to the composer’s own actions, these reviews have largely been ignored and the bad reviews have become the story. This opera was actually a commercial and critical success but posterity will probably now remember only that it was slated by one or two critics. Major own-goal.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    It’s like an Onion headline

    “Composer gives up opera, no one inconvenienced.”

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Why stop at opera! We look forward to Mr. Turnage expanding his new ‘minimalist’ approach to other genres of classical music.

  • YoYo Mama says:

    A lot more composers should not only stop composing operas, but stop “composing” altogether.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A thought that often crosses my mind here, but I refrain from expressing it, since I work for one. Sometimes I think: don’t they have enough with the entire Boulez oeuvre? What can you say after that? Nothing, and that is said much too often. Why can’t people accept that it’s over? that everything has already been composed and that there’s now more than enough? It’s like the whole earth which has been explored and put into carts. It’s finished. We see here a lot of programmers, performers, critics (not so often these days), and then I think: silly people, can’t find a decent job and thus go into the music business.


  • VIolinaccordion says:

    It’s a conspiracy ! He’s being sidelined in favour of Alma Deutscher.
    Her new, new opera Sinderella.