Monday, December 17, 2007

A response (albeit brief) to the now famous Ionarts Review

It seems that too often lately these blogs are prefaced by saying that they will be short. This one I'm afraid is no exception. I am running out the door for a day of advertising, lunches, and rehearsals. We also have our donor holiday party on Thursday and I am trying to find where I have mislaid my piano skills. All that said, I did want to write a bit of a response to the Ionarts review of "Messiah" and the controversy that arose since.

I know, I know....never reply to a review. This should be no exception, but self control has never been my forte:

First the title "The M-word...S & M". This is fun for some I suppose. Would that it were an accurate representation of the show it would warrant praise for its wit, even if the rest of the article provided a rounded and representative overview of the show...but alas no. This reviewer, as do many of the other contributors to the debate, makes AOT's "Messiah" sound like an "s & m sex fest". The review even says that the angel (I'm trying not to be a spoiler, really) is “ravaged” and that she wears a “skin-tight” outfit. All of this, I must be frank, is blatantly untrue. I don't want to say that the reviewer lied, but... More disturbing is that the review fails to mention the rest of the show (which does beg the question as to whether the reviewer stayed through the entire piece). The violence in this piece is indicated by the text. It is a necessary part of the story and, with that in mind, it is in fact quite a small part of the whole picture. This violence is the pathway to redemption and this reviewer in his overview (for it was much more overview than review) he stops short, giving the reader the impression that violence is the overriding aesthetic of the piece.

I read Ionarts daily. I think it serves admirably a great mission in the DC area. I must gush and say that I love this blog. I also believe that reviewers can write what they please. And, I encourage the audience to take from each performance whatever they will. That said, the reviewer has a responsibility to his readers to present a fair picture of what they will experience upon attending the show or concert being reviewed. Though I definitely question this reviewers abilities in judging the voice (based on this and other reviews), that is subjective opinion and I can only grumble that Ionarts certainly has reviewers with better ears. This production, to any observer, contained violence (sexual or not) in an isolated way where indicated by the text. It was tempered by a clear larger message (to which the entire third part was dedicated). Journalistic integrity should have compelled this reviewer to understand the power of his media and to present a comprehensive, even if critical, review.

As to the sexual side of things...I do encourage the audience to take whatever they will from these performances. It was, however, completely clear that no sexual inuendo was intended by the staging. I think that because our victim is a woman, in certain minds that violence automatically takes on a sexual color. It would be disingenuous of me to encourage free interpretation and then to be upset that some audience members interpreted a sexual overtone. My only complaint is that this review made it sound that the sexuality was overt. He intentionally exaggerated what was at most a scene open to multiple interpretations, and made it sound as if the sexual violence was clear and unavoidable. His use of "ravaged" has a very precise meaning and was obviously not what happened on the stage. This scene might have elicited sexual thoughts for some people. I insist that this has more to do with what is going on in the audience's heads than what is going on on the stage. I also think that this is absolutely fine. It is perfectly understandable why violence against women could be read as sexual. It often is, and the media that surrounds us often depicts it as such. Making that connection does not say anything unhealthy or unnatural. Still, since the staging in this production clearly did not imply sexual violence, and since the angel in our production is "broken with a rod of iron" and not "ravaged" in any way, I feel this reviewer perverted the truth to come up with a cute title and self-aggrandizing article.

Be critical, that is your job. But don't be so at the cost of presenting a true reflection of what you saw. That is also your job. Simply having a musical background is not sufficient to be a critic. Criticism is an art and a skill. Only the most innately talented individuals should practice it without some study of journalism, writing, or at the very least journalistic ethics. It does a disservice to the entire profession, and is no doubt part of why arts criticism is languishing in the United States. It is most important to recognize that what one writes in the public forum has real consequences, and that is why the reviewer has a responsibility to be accurate and fair.


jfl said...

This sounds a lot more balanced than what readers were able to take away from your shorter comments (and those of clay and other, anonymous, "supporters") on Ionarts.

Also: Never wrestle with a pig -- you both get dirty... and the pig likes it! :-)

Timothy Nelson said...

The quote the I allowed Charles to include was part of a larger email that out of context might have sounded unbalanced.

I don't know that I'm willing to go so far as to call myself a pig...but I certainly don't mind getting dirty either. Anyway Jens, I'm committed to winning you over eventually. I think had you seen this production you would have actually liked it. I plan on spending time in Munich in the Spring, I have a friend dancing at Bayerische, so perhaps we will meet up!

jfl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jfl said...


Based on the comments (incl. yours) that were published in the comment section and as part of the review and based on the review of Michael's itself, I would still have defended Michael... because I don't agree with the way the criticism was laden with insinuations and presumptions (that I thought inappropriate).

All that *completely* independently of whether I would have liked, loved, understood, been baffled by your staging, or not.

As you may know, I *love* controversial settings of the old and tired thing... I want truths to be expressed in new and bold ways. And I even embrace failure to achieve that, as long as the artists have tried.

And I would not want to spit in someone's soup only because I have not understood a production or understood it and found it to be "not my thing".

That said, I *also* vigorously defend a right to understand, and interpret, a work in ways that the creator has not intended. And the right to a snarky review thereof.

The initial responses to review were - in my opinion and with the benefit or hindrance of distance - more troubling than the review. My defense of the review in the comment section, employing irony, was not "asinine" (as it has been called), it was to the point, I think. Just not the particular point others wanted to emphasize.

This is a conciliatory comment, of course, but I want to point out one more thing about your response: I really don't think you should have said that "the reviewer lied".

I find that troublesome -- because knowing or not knowing Michael (or me, if it had been me to write the review) we should at least use our benefit of the doubt as regards the will to do honest reporting on those who do.

Failing at doing a good job reviewing, or getting something wrong, or coming away a deviating opinion is not the same as "lying", which has pointed moral implications. It'd be like calling the weather-man a liar for having predicted rain and then it ended up snowing. Or something like that.

Furthermore - and a little egg on your face: the reviewer never once mentioned anything about "skin-tight clothing" in the review. Nothing. I edited the thing, I looked at the original and what's on Ionarts now... no such mention. I think it slipped into the debate in a comment section somewhere else.

OK... that being out of my system: AWESOME that you'll be in Munich. Presumably I'll still be here, then, and not back in DC yet. I definitely hope we might be able to meet up. If need be, I can always play part-time host... it's kind-of a second home to me, after all. (And in my Lederhosen I totally fit in, too!)

Timothy Nelson said...

Wow, quite a long comment! Well, you are quite right. The "skin-tight" comment was indeed from another contributor. It is equally untrue, but not from Michael. I think it is clear that from Michael's indications that he thought the scene was sexaul one can assume that use of the word "ravaged" indicated rape and not the more tame defintion. This would be a lie. That said, seeing that it is easy to claim that another meaning was intended, I "unsay" that he with the truth though, absolutely.

I simply think the opening statement in your comment, though I admit witty and particularly in response to productions in your part of the world ringing true, it was a dangerous thing to say. Readers that weren't at the show could easily have thought you were there and that there was sodomy on the stage. The last thing we need in DC are more people afraid to step out of the box.

Anyway, I continue to look forward to your thoughts on the Munich productions. I do particularly like Alden's work there.

jfl said...

...and I'd all be for sodomy on stage... but that's a different story. :-)

Alden's Giulio Cesare was my first Baroque Opera (I happened to have gotten a ticket to the premiere performance from a professor back then - 11th row 'Parkett', center seat - and it was love at first sight.

And I fell in love all over again with his Callisto. That's probably the best baroque opera performance (all round) I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

I'll have to dig out and finally edit my interviews with Sally Matthews and Monica Bacelli on the subject of Alden and La Callisto.

As per my comment: You'll be very happy to hear, no doubt, that I resisted the urge to make good use of the word "Turkey-slap" in the same sentence as "Messiah" and "Angel". Ha! :-)


Will you be in town to catch Tamerlano at the Bayerische?

Akimon Azuki said...

Jens is doing the right thing defending Michael's right to free speech in principle, but he has not seen the production, and unless AOT is planning telecast of this weekend's performances in Baltimore, probably will not get a chance to catch it. This all boils down to AOT's nit picking on two words: "ravaged" and "skin tight". I saw the Friday production and I personally think both are good choices. The angel was dressed in a rather tight, white dress that emphasized her lovely bosom very
clearly. Exhibit A, the
on this very blog. When she was on the ladder, she was groped by the other characters rather roughly, and I can think of lot worse ways of describing it than to say was being "ravaged".
AOT should at this point say "There is no such thing as bad publicity!" and just continue to do their thing, and let Ionarts and other bloggers do theirs.

Timothy Nelson said...

Unfortunately that isn't true...there is such a thing as bad a publicity. The words "grope" and "ravaged" have sexual conotations that anyone who saw the show can say were not realized. Sure the "groped" her in the sense that they grabbed her to tie her up, sure they "ravaged" her in the sense that they beat her. The two words in a modern sense bring up images of rubbing breasts, rape, nudity, sexual assault through forced penetration. If a reader had not seen the show they would have assumed these things. That the Handel choir considered not doing the show based on that characterization (which by true definition is correct, but in what it implies is a gross misrepresentation)is testament to the fact that there is such a thing as bad publicity. Had the Handel choir trusted the blogs and not my reassurances, the Baltimore shows would have been cancelled, the company really in severe financial trouble, and next season probably completely cancelled. If one is going to use those words, I think it is only fair (and responsible for those who claim to love and support the arts) that they qualify the terms so people don't think sexual acts are going to be displayed to the tune of Handel's score.