Q. How many classical music critics does it take to screw in a light bulb?


A.  Only one.  But that light shines brighter than all the other listeners’.

Anne Midgette, the Washington Post‘s classical music critic, recently wrote a profile/interview with composer Jake Heggie, prior to the opening of Washington National Opera’s production of Heggie’s opera “Moby-Dick”.  A fair amount of the article focused on how the opera audience and the opera critics have expressed different views of Heggie’s operas, also including “Dead Man Walking.”  Here’s how the article starts:

Jake Heggie has been seen as the epitome of contemporary American opera composers. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” written with Terrence McNally, had its premiere in 2000. It was a smashing success. It was toward the start of what has become a wave of recent American operas that have taken well-known works — “A Streetcar Named Desire” (André Previn), “Little Women” (Mark Adamo) — and set them to music, to popular acclaim. Some critics, however, deplore the populist turn that some of this work has taken, a style that Heggie — beloved of the public, but not always of the critics — is often seen to represent.

 The fact that the tastes of music critics and the tastes of the general classical and operatic audience are not the same should not come as a surprise to anyone, and was a recurring theme of my earlier blog for New England Public Radio.  Here’s one entry, in which I credit Ms. Midgette for her rare (among fellow critics) awareness of the critical-audience divide.  But, as I put it in my on-line comment on the present article:

There’s a subtext here worth exploring: When the tastes of the critics (how many critics are “some critics,” by the way?) and the audience are at odds, which one is more important? It cannot be doubted that as a class, critics are far more fond of dissonant, edgy, “challenging” (whatever that really means) fare than the audience as a whole. Does that thus make such music better or more important than the more melodic music favored by the audience? Even though they’re in the tiny minority, the critics’ greater access to the media tends to lend weight to their verdicts. Should it? And does anyone speak for the desires of the audience? Perhaps Ms. Midgette could address this is some future piece.

Or put another way:  If you like a piece of music, should you care if a critic doesn’t, or vice versa?  Lots of questions here; please feel free to offer your own answers.

(Photo:  Thomas Alva Edison gazing upon one of his best inventions.  Now there’s the subject for a good opera!)


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