Censor-dämmerung

Brünnhilde (center) left hanging by Wotan. A metaphor for WQXR’s treatment of writer Olivia Giovetti? / Photo by Yves Renaud/Metropolitan Opera

Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb finds himself today embroiled in a censorship scandal. This is trouble he does not need. Yet he seems to have acted foolishly, all the more so because it was all just so unnecessary.

According to Daniel J. Watkin in The New York Times, Gelb personally reached out to the management of New York Public Radio’s classical music station WQXR to “complain” about a post on their Operavore blog by Olivia Giovetti. The post was critical of Gelb and the current performances of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle-the first run of the full cycle with the new production by Robert Lepage, which premiered in 2010 with performances of the individual operas.

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Some times after Gelb’s call, Giovetti’s post was removed and scrubbed from the WQXR site. WQXR told the Times that post was taken down because it “wasn’t up to our high standards,” but that they reserved the prerogative to “criticiz[e] the Met and anything they do.” Giovetti, tactfully, has remained silent on the issue since the removal of her essay.

The Times report ends by noting: “The Met has a small sponsorship arrangement with WQXR, which for decades has broadcast live Met performances on Saturdays.” Suggesting that the radio station bowed to business-relationship pressures, but, it’s worth noting, not saying it outright.

Giovetti’s blog post, heroically preserved and hosted by the opera gossip blog Parterre.com, is available via the “PDF” link on this page.

So, to lay everything out plainly: there’s no smoking gun and everyone involved insists they acted ethically, that the whole affair of the deleted blog post was nothing but an editorial decision. Which is completely possible (if not especially plausible). But it does look bad for both Gelb and WQXR who, at the very least, appear to have censored an opinion piece. Moreover, Giovetti explicitly casts her post as part of a high-profile public conversation starting with Alex Ross in The New Yorker on March 12 and continuing on through a defensive interview Gelb gave to Anthony Tommasini at the Times on April 3.

Gelb has been getting plenty of criticism over, among other things, this Ring, and the criticism has been both more forceful than Giovetti’s and in more prominent publications than the WQXR blog. That is why it is hard to understand why he picked up the phone and generated a censorship hubbub now.

It’s easy to imagine how Gelb might have been thrown off his game by an often-quoted, devastating passage from Ross’s article, especially insofar as it appeared in the widely-read and indisputably taste-making New Yorker:

Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history. Many millions of dollars have been spent to create a gargantuan scenic machine of creakily moving planks, which have overshadowed the singers, even cowed them, without yielding especially impressive images.

It’s not like Giovetti’s blog post was more aggressive than that.

A closer view of The Machine’s planks. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Ross is referring to the dominant aspect of Lepage’s Ring production, a set of 24 enormously heavy, enormously expensive planks that rotate on an axis to create a variety of stage environments. This has come to be called “The Machine.”

If you want a sense of specifically what (one critic thinks) is wrong with Lepage’s Ring, beyond Ross’s forceful but vague declarations, critic James Jorden’s exquisite analysis of Götterdämmerung is online at Musical America. Jorden even previously published an eight-point plan recommending how the Met might fix some of the production’s problems.

COLUMN: The Lorgnette
CATEGORIES: Music, Rants, Theater

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