On the Beat

On the Beat

Domingo, the most honored tenor of our time, objects to criticism in The Washington Post; a short run for Fleming and Graham in the feature Margaret.
by BRIAN KELLOW

On the Beat Idomeneo lg 112
Critic-proof? Domingo in the Met's 2001 Idomeneo © Beth Bergman 2012

THE ACTRESS RUTH GORDON relates a story in one of her memoirs that I've always loved. In 1915, when she made her stage debut as Nibs, one of the Lost Boys in MAUDE ADAMS's Peter Pan, Gordon received a brief, positive mention from the powerful theater critic ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT. Naïvely, she wrote Woollcott a thank-you note. Decades later, the actress was still mortified that she had committed such a terrible gaffe. 

Gordon had a point. I have never been entirely comfortable with artists who write chummy letters to critics, or with critics who fraternize with stars. Even though social networking rules are being rewritten by the second, I still believe there should be a healthy distance between a critic and a performer. It's fine if a performer wants to write to a critic, pointing out some factual error in his review. But most of the time, I'd prefer that the two camps did their best to avoid each other on a personal level.

I was thinking about all of this recently during the start-of-season debate that arose between PLÁCIDO DOMINGO, peripatetic tenor, sometime conductor, beloved cultural icon and ex-general director of Washington National Opera, and ANNE MIDGETTE, chief music critic of The Washington Post. In her review of WNO's season opener, Tosca, starring PATRICIA RACETTE, Midgette described Domingo's conducting as having "sabotaged" the performance. She wrote that "rather than supporting the singers, his conducting either drowned them out or tripped them up. He got warm applause, but I'm not sure his presence sells enough tickets to make up for spoiling the evening."  

Immediately, Domingo responded to Midgette's blast, accusing her, in a letter printed by the Post, of having "crossed the line between reasonably objective criticism and what appears to be open animosity." Domingo objected to the use of the word "sabotage" on the grounds that "sabotage is a destructive act done on purpose." He closed his letter by calling Midgette's choice of words "unconscionable." 

Domingo's literal-minded definition can be written off as amusing. After all, "sabotage" can also be used to denote something that causes harm, whether intentionally or not — as in the kind of sabotage regularly perpetrated against children by their high-minded parents. What's less funny is that this response comes from a man who has probably received more widespread praise than any other artist currently active on the opera stage. Domingo is treated with great respect by most members of the press, who regularly pay tribute to his longevity, seemingly boundless musical appetite and staggering productivity. But I'm afraid he wants to be loved just a little too much. It's taking nothing away from his other accomplishments to say that Domingo has never been a first-class conductor, so his response to Midgette seems churlish. I have a feeling that if EDGAR VINCENT, the veteran artist-manager who represented the tenor with such style and dignity for so many years, were still with us, Domingo might have remained mute on the subject.  

But all of this begs a more interesting question, one that concerns the music press, which has often overlooked the quality of some of Domingo's performances. Off the top of my head, I can recall an Idomeneo at the Met in 2001 that sounded a little like a sight-reading performance, and a Queen of Spades in 2004 in which the prompter was in fortissimo mode whenever Domingo was singing. Then there's the long string of rather shapeless performances he has conducted. The journalists who cover the movie and rock industries usually get tougher on actors and musicians as they become bigger stars. The classical music press, however, tends to move in the opposite direction: the bigger the stars, the more powerful the publicity machine behind them, the more the press chooses the path of least resistance. Domingo's accomplishments are mightily impressive, and he has earned our respect. But if he wants to remain a vital force in the music world, which he obviously does, he shouldn't feel that he's above criticism.

BACK IN 2005 , OPERA NEWS commissioned a piece on Margaret, a KENNETH LONERGAN movie starring ANNA PAQUIN. The peg for our readers was that the Paquin character's great epiphany took place during a performance of Les Contes d'Hoffmann. RENÉE FLEMING and SUSAN GRAHAM were engaged to sing the barcarolle for this sequence. It's always a newsworthy event for us when opera singers get a chance to be part of a major film or TV series, so OPERA NEWS dutifully trucked down to lower Manhattan to watch the two ladies film the barcarolle over and over and over again. 

A few months later, the magazine was told by the offices of one of the film's producers, SCOTT RUDIN, that the movie's release was going to be delayed, and that OPERA NEWS should hold space for the story when a final release date was decided upon. When it was explained that editorial space might not be available in just any given issue, the reaction from Mr. Rudin's office was rather testy. Okay, scratch that — it was downright rude.

Margaret's release date was delayed, then delayed some more. When a major movie is left languishing in the can for this long, there's usually a good reason: it's a dog. In this case, OPERA NEWS learned, the picture had come in at an excessive length, and cutting it down was posing a huge problem: it was a delicately structured film, and eliminating random scenes created continuity issues. Nothing more was heard about Margaret until the announcement of its release this past September. 

I loved Lonergan's 2000 indie comedy You Can Count on Me and had planned to write about Margaret in this very column. But when I called Mr. Moviefone, he informed me that Margaret had moved out and left no forwarding address. According to Cinemablend.com, the film opened in two theaters, one in New York and one in L.A., with pitiful opening-weekend grosses. Cinemablend estimates that it was seen by a total of 624 moviegoers. Immediately, it vanished from theaters. 

It's a shame, really. It's not often that opera singers make it into the movies. But if we want to catch a glimpse of Fleming and Graham performing in an opera they've never done onstage, it looks like we'll have to keep an eye on YouTube. spacer 

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10