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Posted at 10:12 AM ET, 02/24/2011

On Anna Nicole and the critics

By Anne Midgette

After I saw “Anna Nicole,” the opera, I posted links on this blog to a lot of reviews, both positive and negative. I got some nice comments about this being somehow brave or unusual. While that’s flattering, I submit that such a comparison is not “brave,” but essential.

One reason I started this blog (and it still says so in the “about this blog” tag over on the left) is that I wanted to celebrate the diversity of opinions about music. I don’t think criticism should pretend any longer, if it ever did, that the critic represents the voice of truth. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that what I say is the only way to think about something, since there’s plenty of evidence that other people think differently (not least in my in-box).

In fact, criticism today is all about diversity of opinion. When I’m going to the movies, I often go to an iPhone app that links to dozens of reviews of the same film from outlets around the country. Obviously, reading these doesn’t change my opinion of the film once I’ve seen it, but it does help me form a more complete picture of the range of thought about it. Today, viewing a spectrum of different opinions is the norm, rather than the exception: think, Epinions, and restaurant reviews on Yelp.

What I find regrettable in this field is the tendency to divide into camps and brand as idiots anyone who has a different opinion. I didn’t like “Anna Nicole” very much (though I really hoped I would). Jessica Duchen, in The Independent, liked it a lot, and on her blog she elaborated still more reasons why she liked it. I found Jessica’s opinions to be among the most interesting writing about the piece, and I told her so when we went out for a drink a couple of days later. (Yes, we disagreed, and yet we met and discussed the opera and even had a good time, and both managed to avoid thinking the other was an idiot.)

In fact, we observed a few of the same things about the opera and reacted to them in different ways. Jessica also felt there were dramatic problems with “Anna Nicole”; she just felt the music was strong enough to overcome them, where I felt that the libretto weighed down the music. And we simply reacted differently: Jessica was moved by the opera, and I wasn’t. This happens sometimes. I was at a museum show a last weekend and a man in front of me stopped in front of a painting and said to his wife, with excitement and certainty, “This is the best piece in the show.” The piece in question didn’t do a thing for me, but I was intrigued by his genuine enthusiasm; there are a lot of different ways, in the arts, to be “right.”

It’s for that reason that I do try to post links to other points of view (as Charles T. Downey does religiously on, and that I encourage all readers to post their own reviews, though not all that many of you are eager to take me up on this. The point of criticism is to foster discussion, appreciation, thought -- not to seize on a couple of points and use them to further one’s own predetermined agenda. Jessica’s post didn’t make me change my mind about “Anna Nicole,” but it gave me a real understanding of what the piece had done for her and why she liked it. Indeed, some of my most interesting conversations about music have been with people who had a completely different view than I did.

It would be pretty sad, and limiting, if critics shut out other opinions thinking they might challenge ours or make us look bad. Seeing the spectrum of opinion is part of the fun; it makes the piece more interesting for everybody. A new work, in particular, is in the position of the blind men and the elephant: everyone who was there can give his or her own piece of the experience, and readers, seeing them all together, can try to amalgamate them into a larger, and more accurate, picture.

Two further points about “Anna Nicole.” One is that I think the opera had a different effect to those who were less familiar with Anna Nicole Smith’s actual story. Many critics found it entertaining, even if they didn’t like it, whereas one of my beefs with it was that I didn’t find it very entertaining at all. I think the fact that I, to my shame, knew a bit about Anna Nicole’s life (including her train-wreck reality TV show) rendered me impervious to the charms of an opera that did little more than recount the facts, without developing the characters.

The second point is that I wanted to post good reviews because I so much wanted to like it. I am deeply frustrated that through not liking it I have been taken up by those who find the whole idea of an Anna Nicole opera as somehow sullying the divine temple of opera. This is no different from those 19th-century purists who castigated Verdi for writing an opera about a real-life courtesan (though I bet these “Anna Nicole” haters just adore “La traviata” today). What is wrong with an opera by a first-rate composer that examines a bizarre and perhaps amoral pop culture icon? (There are plenty of sex- and/or money-obsessed, amoral heroines in opera, from Manon and Carmen to Lulu.) I didn’t think “Anna Nicole” succeeded, but that had nothing to do with the choice of subject matter. I rather liked “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” and if Richard Thomas had brought the same sparkle and wit and wry social commentary to this libretto, rather than a kind of heavy-handed moralizing, the piece would have been a lot better.

By Anne Midgette  | February 24, 2011; 10:12 AM ET
Categories:  music on the Web, opera, random musings  
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Thanks for a smart and necessary column, Anne.

I remember when I was at Newsday and "Nixon in China" came to Brooklyn. I loathed it -- still do -- but my fellow critic Peter Goodman thought it was terrific. Solution? We ran both reviews. And why not?

Posted by: TimPage1 | February 24, 2011 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Excellent column. Reading it, I was reminded of the words of the late, great music critic, Alan Rich, who believed fervently the job of a critic was to write critically, in every sense of that word. "The purpose of a critic, Alan wrote in his book, So I've Heard: Notes of a Migratory Music Critic, "is “not to lead his readers into blindly accepting his truths, but to stimulate them, delight them, even irritate them into formulating truths which are completely their own.”

Posted by: BobTatFORE | February 25, 2011 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the review Anne. As with most operas, it is mainly the music that conveys the emotions to the audience. You can always have the worst plot and still have a superb opera but if the music is bad there is not much a good story can do. If I want a good story I read a book or watch a play. The Anna Nicole story is a true American tragedy and it had all the elements to make it a good opera. Sorry to hear it does not appear to have worked out this time, but who knows, someone else might write a better one. After all there are many operas on the same subject: Oedipus, Faust, Rome and Juliette, Othello, to name a few.

Posted by: Mike-Klein | February 25, 2011 4:52 PM | Report abuse

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