Beware the rise of the remote opera review

Beware the rise of the remote opera review


norman lebrecht

October 19, 2020

The Times’ music critic Richard Morrison reviewed Covent Garden’s reopening this weekend from a seat at home.

‘With so few seats available…,’ he begins, before warning us four paragraphs further on that he was ‘witnessing it online in my living-room (a case of temporary Covid-19 shielding, sadly)’.

That struck a dud note.

If the opera house has gone to the trouble of reopening, a newspaper like the Times should have made sure its critic was at the venue. No newpaper would cover a football or tennis match from a live feed. The same standard should apply to the performing arts.

A critic in his or her living room loses the essential third dimension when watching  performance. Morrison, more experienced than most, was able to suggest something of the magnitude of the production.

But not being there was wrong. If he was quarantined, someone else should have gone.

We have a right to expect that a critic should be there.



  • yujafan says:

    many’s a time I have seen a critic disappear at the interval, yet the review makes it sound like s/he was there for the entire event…. sigh…

    • Bruce says:

      Two responses come to mind simultaneously:

      (a) Couldn’t s/he have simply moved to a different seat for the second half?

      (b) I remember a review of a concert I was in where the reviewer mentioned a duet between flute (played by me) and solo violin. (The concertmaster, not a violin soloist; I think it was Mahler 2?) The critic had been present at the dress rehearsal, where we worked on that spot; reading the review I thought “oh darn, I really tried, and I thought we did it. Oh well, you win some and you lose some.” Then I heard the broadcast on the radio a few nights later, and that duet was together. He reviewed something he heard at the dress rehearsal. Was he even at the concert? No idea.

      • IC225 says:

        Or possibly the sonic picture you heard on the radio was different from what was audible in the hall (see every BBC Proms relay ever…)

        • Alexander Hall says:

          Yes, it’s always the knob-twiddling engineers who falsify the experience in the hall. Mind you, that way you get to hear two entirely different performances. And I speak from experience!

        • Bruce says:

          Possibly. Since the microphones hang in the air in the middle of the auditorium, they “hear” from a perspective that no audience member can have. I always knew that changed blends & balances, but it never occurred to me that it could change ensemble/ synchronization too.

      • V.Lind says:

        I have moved occasionally when reviewing. There are various reasons to do so.

    • IC225 says:

      Urban myth – originally derived from a fictional incident in a novel by Kingsley Amis. I’ve often heard people claim this (and claim that they’ve witnessed it “many times”). They have never once been able to back it up with verifiable evidence.

      So: give us dates, names and ideally links to the reviews. Otherwise: bullshit.

      • Jon Eiche says:

        But such an entertaining myth! The story goes that a critic decided to “review” a concert from merely seeing the printed program, which included Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. He began the review, “Five clarinets is an unusual combination…”

    • Maria says:

      Yes, particularly when they were sent to the north of England from London or outside, say Manchester or Leeds, in the old days and when the review was there the next morning, and they had to get the last train home! A bit different. But to leave before the end of a concert when on the doorstep is just bad manners, and was often done – if they even turned up at all. Reviewing from your living room, in your pyjamas and a glass of wine, and not say you are reviewing remotely, is also bad practice. Either they are there or they’re not.

  • William says:

    There is nothing new in this. In the 1980s William Mann, also of The Times, would occasionally review Royal Festival Hall concerts from live broadcasts. On one occasion he admitted to being in the hall for the first half and at home for the second!

  • Brian says:

    Funnily enough, the Backtrack critic seems more than happy:

    “A live audience returns to Covent Garden, but those watching at home get the better deal”

  • Eric says:

    There’s nothing new here whatsoever. Critics from major newspapers have reviewed from broadcasts for years. And sports reporters in this day and age are reviewing from feeds all the time!!

    • V.Lind says:

      Sports reporters usually do. Back in the day when papers sent reporters to cover golf tournaments, they were onsite and did interviews and all that, but they covered the tournament off TV coverage. They saw more that way — on the course, they would have had to follow one group, or lose a lot of time changing groups. All the reporters work from the press room.

      But in many years of covering the arts — ballet, opera, concerts, theatre, other live shows of one sort or another — I always did it from the hall where the performance was, and I never heard of any of my colleagues doing it any other way.

      Still, the reporter was not pretending — he laid out his vantage point up front. I am surprised that the papers did not send live bods to the hall, but it’s a new world out there.

      • William Safford says:

        I cannot speak to the current conditions in Europe in general or England in particular.

        Here in the U.S., I will not attend or perform in an indoor concert at this time. I might make an exception if it were adequately socially distanced with high-quality air filtration and such. At this time where I am, it’s moot.

        All my performing has been either virtual, or outdoors and socially distanced. My rehearsals for my one active ensemble have been outdoors and socially distanced, or in a facility with strong cross ventilation and also socially distanced.

        I have not attended a live concert since March.

        If I were a critic, I would not attend a live concert under current pandemic conditions. This reporter was up front about doing the best he can under the circumstances. I may bemoan the need for him to do as he did, but I do not take him to task for doing so.

  • IC225 says:

    1. Critics have been reviewing broadcasts and livestreams all year, or at least since March (there’s this thing called Covid-19…).
    2. With limited seats available in socially-distanced venues, many venues are not making seats available to critics. ENO made no review seats available for its drive-in Boheme and Glyndebourne excluded critics from its summer performances in the gardens, to give two examples.
    3. If individual critics are particularly vulnerable to infection (age or infirmity) it’s unreasonable to expect them to expose themselves to it when an alternative exists – at least, not for the sort of money they’re earning.
    4. As other commenters point out above, critics have been reviewing from broadcasts for decades.
    5. When a performance is being presented simultaneously live and through a broadcast medium, the broadcast experience is far closer to the experience of the majority of the audience (and the review’s probable readers). In those circumstances, it’s arguably more useful to review the broadcast. That will certainly be the case here, where the live audience was very small and access to tickets was almost impossible outside a select circle.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      All true. But if there’s a live performance, there needs to be a live critic. All else is pointless (and makes it very easy to sack all critics in the next cull).

      • Greg Bottini says:

        “But if there’s a live performance, there needs to be a live critic”.

      • Le Křenek du jour says:

        With all due respect, Mr. Lebrecht — and you know that my respect is deeply felt — if critics are to be live, they need to stay alive. You can’t have it both ways.

        I am not convinced of the wisdom of having live performances with live audiences in the first place, as long as Covid-19 skyrockets. Not even under Salzburg conditions, which were hailed as exemplary.
        But if they take place all the same, I certainly shouldn’t wish to wantonly expose the most experienced critics, which tend to be persons of a certain age, therefore belonging to the group potentially at a high risk if infected.

        We have to get used to live broadcasts and streaming as the new normal for quite some time. We need critics who can help make such broadcasts as good as technically possible. We need them ALIVE.

  • Matthias says:

    “No newpaper would cover a football or tennis match from a live feed.”
    Yes, they would. They do that all the time – especially now in Covid times!

  • Allen says:

    Perhaps the reviewer should state whether or not the review was live, and let the readers decide.

  • GCMP says:

    Ideally, there would be an in person complete review, and then perhaps a review from someone else about what the broadcast experience is like at home. (since this may differ from standard radio/TV airings.) Of course in Britain you have the Proms and other TV broadcasts of classical events all the time – but in the US that is still a rarety.

  • FrankW says:

    I’m reminded of Peter Sellers’ gentle, lovable, dimwitted character in “Being There”: “I like to watch TV.”

  • Bobby Pape says:

    I’d much prefer reviewers be there in person. But I reject the notion that there is not value to someone reviewing the experience more people are taking in. The camera angles and sound feeds are the 21st Century additions to stagecraft and lighting, and they aren’t going away even when audiences return. These tools give our sector the chance to reach more people, and ignoring them will leave us in the past.

    How about a review from the hall and another from the sofa? As long as we’re clinging to ideals I wouldn’t mind putting more critics to work.

    • V.Lind says:

      I’d love to see more critics in work, but as they were being laid off, or their assignments reduced or combined long before Covid, it seems unlikely somehow.

      But how refreshing to read someone who appreciates the value of critics.

  • James Weiss says:

    If the critic isn’t there in person then it’s not a real review. It’s fraud. Is this where journalistic standards are these days? Pathetic.

    • V.Lind says:

      It’s not fraud when the critic announces up front precisely what it is he is reviewing — the broadcast — as this one did. How do you define fraud — not doing what you want? You may prefer a live review, but this is not fraudulent. Using words inaccurately is.

  • Alexander Hall says:

    I couldn’t agree more. However, it is quite astonishing how many critics justify their presence at home claiming it is just like reviewing a DVD. Make of that what you will.

  • Doc Martin says:

    Reviews are mere subjective opinion, they have no academic weight at all.

    As Oscar Wilde once remarked, “the critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic”.

    • Garech de Brun says:

      Asked his opinion of a university setting up a chair of musical criticism, Sir Thomas Beecham replied “If there is to be a chair for critics, I think it had better be an electric chair.”

  • William Safford says:

    I’m reminded of the instances in which reviewers are busted (and, many other times, not busted) for writing reviews of concerts they didn’t attend.

    At least this person was forthright about viewing the concert remotely.

    • Nick2 says:

      Decades ago I recall a concert in Hong Kong in which the Stravinsky Symphony in 3 Movements was scheduled. Prior to the concert there was an announcement that the Symphony would be replaced with a different Stravinsky work. The critic had arrived late and clearly missed the announcement. He then left at the interval and reviewed a work which had not in fact been played.

      • William Safford says:


        Also, I like the Symphony in 3 Movements, both listening to it and performing it. It should be performed more often.

  • Player says:

    “If you cannot afford to p(l)ay, you’ll have to stay away…”

  • Andrew says:

    With so few seats available, the vast majority of people viewing the performance will have been at home, therefore, the review will have been an accurate one based on how much people saw the performance…i.e much more representative

  • Jim says:

    I take it that all future commentary on Yuja Wang’s clothing choices will only be made by those present at the actual event?

  • papageno says:

    Didn’t NYT’s Bernard Holland get busted one time for reviewing a performance that he did not attend?

    For credible music reviews I read the WSJ. NYT is a joke.

  • Ilio says:

    American Baseball writers had to view games remotely as they weren’t allow to travel with the team. Simply ridiculous of you to suggest that they risk their health, even with precautions.

  • Rafael Enrique Irizarry says:

    A long time ago, the Ensemble’s Library at the Indiana University Jacob’s School of Music proudly displayed a review which a local paper had published after a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony by one of the school’s orchestras. The reviewer profusely excoriated the trumpet section for having the audacity of entering the stage after the work had started…(Those of you not in the know, please check the score in movement one.)

    Closer to home, a highly regarded music reviewer in Puerto Rico’s most read newspaper wrote and published a review for a concert that had been cancelled…

    Another local reviewer showed up for a performance of Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela. During intermission, the reviewer had eagerly approached various members of the orchestra attempting to ascertain the name of the clarinet soloist. (It was actually an English Horn solo. Go figure…) After being told the name of the soloist and getting several gentle reminders that he had actually heard an English Horn, the review came out extolling the virtues of the Clarinet solo.

    Another reviewer wrote extensively about the errant tempo of the tambourine in a performance of The Nutcracker Suite, specifying a movement in which the tambourine is marked TACET. The player sent a photocopy of the part to the newspaper, accompanied by a letter; both were published. The player stated that for the reviewer in question the word TACET probably meant the brand name of some laundry detergent.

    One day I shall tell you of The Flying Violin and the now notorious incident between the great Argentinian violinist Rubén González and conductor John Barnett (now both deceased) in a performance of the Dvořák Violin Concerto.

    And so it goes. Once more into the breech, my friends!

  • Firing Back says:

    Morrison has been spouting on for months about saving live performance – his articles in The Times becoming more and more demented, demanding that choirs resume singing during the height of infectious lockdown, that the Palace of Westminster should be turned into a ‘House of Culture’ (like that’d go down well with the greater public), etc etc.

    If he is the champion of live performance, as he would have you believe, then it’s shameful that he sat at home rather than bothering to attend one.

    Morrison clings on and contributes nothing.
    Gravy train, anyone?

  • Douglas Cairns says:

    I do like the story that I read about Ruth Rendell, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, author of thrillers/ psychological mysteries. She started out on the Chigwell Times but was forced to resign after filing a story about a local sports club dinner she hadn’t attended & failing to report after-dinner speaker had died midway through his speech.