By Charlotte Valori, 8 June 2015

Called by Charlotte Valori (freelance critic, Bachtrack) and Michelle Williams (Artist Management, Scottish Opera). Attended by John Fulljames, Joe McFadden, Danae Eleni, Tony Baker, Stephen Plaice, Harold Routt, Christian Matthew, Tom Sutcliffe, Aleksander Huticom, Emma Black, John Holmes, and others.

Charlotte called the session because, not being a musician herself, she often wonders whether she is really an ideal opera critic (her reviews coming from a dramatic, rather than musicological standpoint). Michelle also called the session, having identified several unanswered questions about critics and their working process in the course of her professional experience.

Contributions came in from all corners of the opera world on the sometimes touchy subject of critics and criticism during this friendly and open panel. We wondered how to find more diverse critical voices; how the format of criticism itself could broaden; and whether writers are castrated by their column inches (or lack thereof). In a dynamic, occasionally feisty and often wide-ranging discussion, the salient points made were as follows:


This title is misleading: we don't need one ideal critic, we need a body of critics: a diversity of viewpoints and voices is vital. Critics currently tend generally to be male and above middle age, often united by similar background in the industry, a uniformity which does not reflect opera audiences, performers or practitioners. We need more critics from all genders, generations, walks of life. Definite interest ran throughout the session in inviting critics from other disciplines (particularly theatre) to review opera.

The chief responsibility of a critic: to indicate to the audience what they might get out of this show. We could imagine the critic as custodian of the “liveness” of the art form.

Given the proliferation of internet-based comment on performance (replies to reviews, tweets, and other social media interactions), is professional criticism now devalued?

The audience as critic: the audience is always the ultimate critic, but often, a small and vocal section dominate audience feedback. Interesting routes around this include:

  • Directors who stay with their production, and talk to audience members (openly or incognito) in the interval, asking what they like /dislike /understand /can’t understand

  • Filming audiences with an infra-red camera during performances to track laughter, tears, and even their gaze – are they reacting as hoped /expected /intended? Are they looking where the director feels they should be looking at any given moment of the action?

    Other critics: theatre photographer (selecting for posterity), now often made obsolete

(or less crucial) by the widespread practice of filming productions in-house to select stills for publicity images; cartoonists (esp. in Victorian theatre and earlier).

Do critics encourage, or discourage, audiences?

• CAN DISCOURAGE: cf. (NY Times) Ben Brant's alleged ability to close a Broadway show overnight (giving him the nickname “The dictator of Broadway”).
• CAN ENCOURAGE: Reviews as an art form - Kenneth Tynan the supreme example - useful in developing public interest, being an advert for opera generally


  • Audiences: the critic should put themselves “in their shoes” and let them know whether the production is “worth seeing”. Beyond the immediate audience (who might buy tickets to that production on the strength of a good review) is the broader public, who might not go to see that particular opera, but who might be ultimately encouraged towards other operas by reading that review: reviews can be an access tool, a gateway to the genre

  • Directors: giving the director feedback on the success of their intentions

  • Artists: the work of critics gives artists exposure, quotes for their website, etc. This can be particularly vital for young artists who may not be paid at all, or certainly not significantly, early in their career – good comments are valuable, bad comments can be professionally destructive

  • Opera companies: everyone has worked hard on this production – critics should support and recognise that effort. Two star ratings feel especially hurtful to the whole company (more on star ratings below)

  • Posterity – the ongoing use of criticism as historical evidence in academia. NB the prevalence of touring opera in the UK (until after WW2): some opera house archives do not go back far, and sometimes the body of criticism is all we have.

  • Themselves! Critics build their own oeuvre or body of work. Elements of personality, branding. The reliability of a particular viewpoint: readers might rely on one, tend to agree with another, know you’ll disagree with a third.


  • Honest and accurate
    Their own response - not reflecting other critics (and not reading others before deciding their own opinion; herd mentality not useful)

  • The ability to explain WHAT a production IS can be more helpful to the reader than labelling it “good” or “bad”; the director's intent, however, should be clear to the audience within the performance (critic should not need to explain this specifically, although they may well indicate it while discussing it)

  • Descriptive ability should (and often must) be balanced by discipline of expression. Are some critics castrated by column length??


• A privileged position
Possibly unaffordable by audience /reading public? The critic needs to have a decent view of the production in order to report accurately on all its aspects, but should bear in mind questions of sight lines (e.g. slanted productions, cf. ROH LoyTristan 2014, in which Auditorium Left had scarcely any view of the performers throughout the work) and audibility (in the days of ensembles, ensemble members would feed back to each other regularly on audibility; modern company structures make this less likely to happen)


Bugbear 1: Why do critics include ‘factoids’ in their pieces which relate to the work, but not the production (e.g. “Just before he wrote this, Mozart’s mother gave him his first Twix.”) Response from critic (CV):
1. If production hasn’t been good, including some initial factual content can be a damage limitation technique, reducing the amount of copy which will contain unfavourable comments about the production;

2. Reviews are personal and subjective; your reader may not agree with you. Including facts gives the reader something objectively valuable to ‘take away’ and keep – even if they reject your opinion this time, they may return to you another time if they perceive you as a well-informed /interesting source;

3. One way of creating the ‘hook’ which is intended to keep the reader engaged until the end of the piece: all good reviews have a hook for structural purposes.


Bugbear 2: ‘Namedropping’ – constantly referring to previous /old productions which audience cannot /will not see, when reviewing a contemporary production
• ADVANTAGE: It is useful to the audience to offer counterpoints from the critic’s wider knowledge landscape
• DISADVANTAGE: Annoying? Possibly: alienating a novice reader? We must beware of in-jokes and snobbishness. Similarly, using culturally obscure /relentlessly sophisticated terms of reference does not help the cause of widening access to opera.

Bugbear 3: Critics can't write effectively or engagingly about lighting. Lighting might be better portrayed by a selection of production photos: easy for bloggers without spatial constraints, much harder (impossible) for print /traditional journalists with word /inch limits. Concern as to whether opera companies could control the images chosen /used.

Bugbear 4: Never ask a critic what they think in the interval: you may not like what you hear, and it almost certainly won't represent what they'll write! Important not to give critics “privileged information” about the production - their view should remain that of an ordinary punter.

CONTRA: Critics could get closer to the production, asking directors questions and allowing directors to respond - adding an interview aspect to their work? Possibly as an occasional diversification from straight criticism, broadening the way reviews are written? The audience as voter; directors as politicians; the critic as Jeremy Paxman, holding the director to account!


• A reductive tool inconsistently applied, the product of the commercial culture in which our art form is presented
• What is the direction of criticism implied by the star rating? Never really clear. E.g. one magazine now has separate star ratings, one for music and a second for production. All felt this was not constructive: opera is the (hopefully) successful and coherent presentation of both these aspects, and they should not be separated by being “marked individually” – a unhelpful trend
• How does it make the company feel? The hurtfulness of a two- or one-star rating for all involved, who have gone to great effort, harnessing significant skill and talent irrespective of outcome.
• The problem of fairness: the critic has their own frame of reference, and cannot give four stars to a production which is not as good as the production to which they gave four stars last week /month.


Should critics see things more than once before forming their opinion?

  • This would be particularly helpful for new work

  • Opera does not have a preview phase (unlike theatre): the opera first night is not always the finished production, but that is the night the critics descend! Unfair on opera companies, in comparison to their theatre counterparts?

    Should critics write about the same production more than once?

    • View may change in a different mood • Everything can always be improved

• Difference between print deadlines (same night, often by 2am) and online deadlines (usually 24-48 hours)

Thank you to everyone who shared their insights, words of wisdom, stories, memories, experiences and ideas on this thorny and occasionally volatile issue!

Charlotte Valori




Critics, Audience, writing, reviews, opera critics, star ratings, audience, Writing, access to opera, opera criticism, critics, lighting, Reviews