Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

When It's Not About Siegfried

May 02, 2012

Jay Hunter Morris and Gerhard Siegel Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2012
I hadn’t decided whether or not to blog separately about Monday night’s performance of Siegfried at The Metropolitan Opera or not. I’ve written about it before and didn’t have a whole lot of startlingly new things to say about it. The billed cast all showed up for the first time in Cycle 2. Robert Lepage’s machine set, continually underwhelming in a myriad of new and different ways, malfunctioned in Act II, leaving an rebellious Plank 24 (or Plank 1 depending on your perspective) at the far right side of the stage fully extended toward the audience throughout the whole act with an apparent case of Wagnerian priapism. Even in the strongest Act of the whole cycle so far, Act II, one wonders why there’s so often so little to look at. Bryn Terfel, the Wanderer, sounded better and better. Jay Hunter Morris in the title role was wonderful vocally and acting wise even when he began to lose steam at the end. Patricia Bardon’s Erda still had on that blinding mirror paneled dress. Eric Owens (Alberich) and Gerhard Siegel (Mime) were both superstars. Katarina Dalayman’s Brünnhilde abrasively shrieked her way through the final act over Fabio Luisi’s surprisingly light touch with the score.

None of this seemed compelling enough for a post, though, until the story broke yesterday in the New York Times when Daniel Wakin reported that local classical radio station WQXR removed a blog post from their site critical of the Met’s new production of the Ring at the specific request of Met Opera general director Peter Gelb. Clucking has ensued over this subject all over the intertubes. Assuming that what is stated in the report is factual, I can’t say I would much blame Mr. Gelb for making such a request if he did so. As head of the company he has an interest in maintaining a positive image for his company’s product, especially with other organizations that the company has sponsorship and other financial arrangements with. Such a request certainly makes business sense. Whether or not such a request should be honored by an independent media organization is an entirely different matter, however, and here the charges of censorship certainly make sense.

What this got me thinking about, though, was about the role of bloggers like myself overall in the media equation these days. It was a large media organization that reportedly removed the piece to begin with. It was another large new organization that discovered what had happened and reported it. And it was one of the Internet’s largest opera bloggers, James Jordan, who subsequently again made the original piece widely available for everyone to read online in much greater numbers than they would have originally.

What’s the meaning of all this? Well if you ask Lisa Hirsch, and you should because she knows an awful lot of things, the incident supports an argument about why a robust independent blogosphere is important for the arts, allowing varied and independent voices to have their say. And I agree she has a point. In the above alleged scenario, one major media organization caved under pressure to one of the largest arts organizations in the country over something that said organization didn’t like. It’s something to think about. There’s been a lot of moaning about what’s been lost with the shrinking ranks of arts journalists along with the declining fortunes of print media in the last several years. And while I won’t disagree that something has been lost with this change, one of those things is not necessarily a free and independent perspective unbridled by the influence of the organizations that this same media covers. No speech is free, nor has it ever been. Small independent bloggers are often accused of being easily bought and sold by the interests that they write about. And while that’s true, don’t believe for a minute that arts journalists for major media organizations aren’t subject to a plethora of political and ethical pressures often from the largest and most powerful organizations they are asked to cover on a regular basis. If the above scenario doesn’t convince you, there are plenty of others, and I’ve heard critics for major papers bitch regularly about things like where their free seats are in the auditorium or what a tragedy it would be if their organization actually had to pay for the tickets for the very programming they are writing about. And this from those with the journalistic morals most beyond reproach.

This is also not to say that big media journalists are somehow more susceptible to influence than small independent voices on line and elsewhere. Of course, the same sorts of political pressures can be brought to bear on smaller voices just as easily, and powerful arts organizations have in many circumstances targeted independent bloggers just as easily as big media organizations. It’s also true that large media organizations sport resources that may help ensure what independence its journalists have against corrupting influences. The point here is that having both types of voices may actually proved some benefit. Part of the reason I started Out West Arts six years ago was because I wanted more critical voices in my local arts scene, not less. I’m not trying to outdo the larger media voices that existed at the time I started and still do. I would never be able to do that for a variety of reasons anyway. But I’m with Lisa in that it's the very fact that there are more voices—and ones that speak from a variety of points of view, expertise, and political perspectives—that an arts scene becomes stronger. With a variety of smaller voices added to the media mix, the diverse plethora of thinking and opinions hopefully can allow for ideas and opinions less encumbered by forces that may want to censor or unduly influence what gets written. Silencing one or two voices is one thing, silencing a great many is much harder.

So I am writing about Siegfried even though I’ve had more to say about other topics, because I think it is important that I do so. Sure you can read about it elsewhere and hear about all kinds of issues regarding the show that I might not even think about bringing up. Still I think what I write here matters if only because it’s one voice among many, and more voices in and of itself is an important thing.

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