Tom Sutcliffe rues the demise of the critic
Opera is big in the German-speaking world, with about €3.5 billion of subsidy per year. In the UK it has to make do with barely £100 million. However, London now has some International Opera Awards sponsored by Harry Hyman’s Nexus Group (a well established property-owner and developer within the worlds of private health and education). The awards themselves were started by John Allison, music critic of the Sunday Telegraph and editor of Opera magazine. The argument for awards is that, with all their razzmatazz, they aid marketing and develop interest. But there are at least three opera monthlies you can buy at German railway stations. They have opera; we have awards.
A few years back I was President of the Critics’ Circle, whose Drama and Film sections have long had their own awards. In the Music section (of which I was chair for a decade) it has proved very hard to establish workable awards, not least because the field of musical performance and composition is so broad and music critics do not all feed at the same trough. Some critics only do chamber music, or pianists, or opera; others stick to contemporary music (like the zany comedian Spike Milligan, who often attended spikey London Sinfonietta concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the 1970s). Serious music-loving is specialised, but the joy of music is that expertise is not needed – just responsive openness.
The future of opera and theatre in our country requires a broad-based pyramid of performances in different places of inevitably varying quality and character. How else will the executants learn their craft? ‘Metropolitan’ is not synonymous with best. Is there a best quartet, or a best conductor? On the Last Day will we discover who has been the most important genius in the human creation of poetry or music or paintings? Is not the expectation of a hierarchy of accomplishment totally missing the point? Lend yourself to music, and the ideas of which it consists turn out to have implications and associations not all to do with aural texture. They feed you by knitting together in the imagination more than you thought yourself capable of feeling.
Of course some performers and artists are better than others. All forms of culture are communally available. Unlike food, all may be consumed without being used up – for digestion is the user’s imagination. Remember Theseus’s immensely wise advice in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I played Titania at 14: ‘with élan,’ as a master reviewing the play wrote) about the Rude Mechanicals’ acting. It applies to every form of human creativity. ‘The best in this kind are but shadows and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.’
Instead of all these prizes, what the world of the performing arts really needs is bigger audiences: crowds of spectators with time, and sympathy, and inquisitiveness to listen to and read and witness all those non-winners pursuing their careers and being paid for their pains: in a local gallery, or in a church where people will come together to experience many different kinds of revelation and stimulus, or in the type of small bookshop which is vanishing from all our lives because the evil wizards of marketing have found shortcuts to selling masses of only a few titles so that only a few performers or writers or creators will actually become rich and famous. The public want to believe simple truths about who’s good and who’s not; and what’s worth reading or not. But talented musicians need chances to be heard. Those deemed best will always be fine. Rather than prizes that add nothing to native achievement, however, what we need are rostra: not building great careers for the few, but sustaining a life of performances for the very many with almost equal giftednesss.
The market-led dumbing-down of the last 40 years is destroying our humanity and range of interest and sympathy. The many non-winners of prizes need to be working and waiting to be experienced and discovered; but audiences for classical music have radically declined in London. The London Symphony Orchestra, which easily used to sell out the Royal Festival Hall’s 3000 seats, cannot now even sell out the Barbican Hall at two-thirds the size. The Festival Hall is an entertainment centre nowadays, and its great days as a shrine to music are long forgotten. Newspapers and magazines have stopped even talking about the great musical masterpieces; and they no longer have critics who can say anything persuasive in the space allotted about works that they think are too familiar, but in fact are forgotten or unknown. Nor can they bring anyone to drink this nectar from the past. Either nobody is interested, or perhaps they already know enough.
The editor of the National Post in Canada, whose distinguished music critic has just resigned because his review of the Canadian Opera Company was altered to suit the company’s media department, confessed ‘I really hate running reviews for performing arts. They simply get no attention online, and almost always end up as our poorest performing pieces of digital content. ’On the Guardian website, ‘Music’ now means pop and rock, and a separate section called “Classical” includes opera. Newspapers no longer have salaried critics on the permanent staff. But can freelance critics really identify with the newspaper’s interest, or be seen by editors as vital for the publication or website to achieve full resonance?
The Daily Sketch, News Chronicle, and Daily Mail (unpretentious papers for ordinary folk) until the 1970s had music critics on their staff on full salaries. Today’s Guardian doesn’t, although The Times has a few. I was a sub at the Guardian; never a salaried critic. At the Evening Standard I was a freelancer. The climate of our culture has changed; and a vast vital area of responsibility has been disastrously abandoned.