Here’s a gnomic question from the English romantic poet William Blake: “Does the eagle know what is in the pit / Or wilt thou go ask the mole?” This little riddle is the basis for all my work as a good professor of literature. What it asks is this: to get an accurate view on something, is it better to be like the eagle—keen-sighted but distant—or like the mole, belonging to a place, but blind?
The answer? Both, of course. Arts criticism is like anything that involves judgment. You want to have the sympathetic insider’s view as well as the objective outsider’s view. This is what makes criticism an exciting venture.
I was thinking of these things in the wake of Dallas Opera’s recent world premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick. Critics from around the country descended on Dallas. They went away with good opinions of our city, the Winspear, the production. But the praise was not hyperbolic, just objective and realistic. Scott Cantrell, our Morning News critic, and Wayne Lee Gay, writing for D Magazine’s FrontRow, were more enthusiastic than the reviewers from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and elsewhere, all of whom had some cavils with the opera or the production. So what? That’s what makes horse races.
Dallas Opera has scaled three world premieres during the past few decades. The first two, Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers (1988), based on a Henry James novella, and Tobias Picker’s Thérèse Raquin (2001), based on a Zola novel, were less well received than Moby-Dick not so much for their musical shortcomings as for their venue, the Music Hall at Fair Park, in which all sounds are lost. But they commanded the attention of the national press. So did the much earlier American premieres of Handel’s Alcina (way back in 1960), Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1963), and Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso (1980). The Dallas Opera has a long and noble history, which has brought us to the attention of the national press (not as much, alas, as Houston Grand Opera under David Gockley’s superb direction for more than a quarter century). And it’s also true, within reasonable boundaries, that all publicity is a good thing.
It goes without saying—almost—that a home-towner wants a local event or group to succeed. Everyone is a booster to some extent. Would Cantrell have written a pan? Probably not as big a one as he would when visiting another city. I was interested, last fall, to see how the New York Times’ chief music reviewer, Anthony Tommasini, treated the two new productions of the New York City Opera, under the helm of George Steel, the guy who came to and then left Dallas in a couple of months in 2008. Tommasini rooted for Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, a very dissonant work, and a new Christopher Alden production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He wanted City Opera to do well. But other reviewers, especially in the blogosphere, were not as generous.
Many years ago, Dallas had a ballet company. In the ’70s, I wrote about dance for an earlier incarnation of D. Dallas Ballet’s young marketing director asked me whether I wanted to attend an after-performance party at which I could meet the cast. I thought for a nanosecond and said, “Certainly not.” How come? If I got to know and, perhaps, to like the dancers, how could I then say negative things about them without hurting their feelings and, even more, feeling like a chump myself? Better, I thought, to stay on the sidelines and have no personal attachments.
It used to be that a big city newspaper had reviewers who wrote about the performances they saw, and other reporters who did features and interviews. Those days are gone. The same people do, or a single person does, it all. Objectivity goes out the window, and the eagle-critic becomes the sympathetic mole. But we need both eagles and moles, outsiders and insiders. We must see ourselves as others see us.
The late John Ardoin, who held sway at the music desk of the News for three decades, until he retired 12 years ago, had it both ways. He once told me, when I asked whether he felt he compromised his objectivity by being friendly with singers and other musicians, “Why, darling”—imagine a big Port Arthur drawl on that last word—“we are all part of one big family, and it’s important to help everyone along in our mission.” His enormous enthusiasm and personality served him well, of course, although they also got him into hot water. Most notably: when he cautioned his friend Maria Callas (whom he had taken in, years earlier, after Aristotle Onassis threw her over for Jackie Kennedy) against pursuing her quixotic last concert tour in 1974. She appeared in Dallas that March. She was in terrible voice, as expected. It was embarrassing. John gave her an honest review. She never spoke to him again.
Honesty is perhaps not the best policy if you are interested in self-preservation and making friends. But it’s the only one that counts, especially if you want—as Dallas so clearly does—to be a “world-class” city. World class means that you can make mistakes, fall on your face or have egg on it. But above all it means you want to take chances and are not ashamed to fail.
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