Why I quit as opera critic of The Age

Michael Shmith Monday, 14 August 2017
Published in ABR Arts

There was a time not that long ago when the arts pages of quality daily newspapers were regarded as essential reading as much for those inside the arts industry as outside it. Just as these newspapers were themselves papers of record, their arts pages existed primarily to record and sustain strong and informed critical opinion. Considered criticism has always been and will always remain the vital final link between creativity, performance, and public appreciation.

I have been associated with The Age for more than thirty-six years in various capacities, especially with its arts pages – for the past seven years as the paper’s opera critic, a role I continued after my retirement from full-time journalism three years ago. Through the arts pages, as with the wider paper, I have worked with a changing cast of fine writers and editors, among them, some of the most inspiring and intelligent and witty journalists it has been my pleasure to know and to hold in respect, if not awe. It was also an extended learning experience. In hearing or reading what my colleagues thought or wrote, was to realise, with gratitude, that one’s own knowledge, and perhaps one’s expertise, increased accordingly. As Joan Sutherland once remarked to a fellow singer, ‘School’s never out.’ And it wasn’t.

In early August, I resigned as The Age’s opera critic. I didn’t particularly want to do so, and my decision was neither pre-emptory nor forced upon me. I left because of the sad but inevitable realisation that The Age’s arts page no longer truly represented or upheld the critical standards that were once imperative to its existence and whose values remain of vital concern to me. And when I say ‘me’, I mean, by default, the artform I had the privilege to review.

Opera is but one of the many artforms under review in The Age (that proud title long ago consumed in the swirling smog of something called Fairfax Media). But arts space has shrunk to the point where there is often just the one page Monday to Friday, with no page on Saturday, and an inordinate amount of copy to run. If you equate the exponential with the extant – the ever-increasing number of performances, exhibitions, and other cultural events in this city juxtaposed with the dwindling budgets (particularly for freelance writers) and forever-shrinking space available in which to publish reviews – it is easy to see how the arts editor’s role has metamorphosed from being able to exercise reasonable judgement in what to run to more drastic, slash-and-burn decision-making.

So it came to pass with opera reviewing for The Age.

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In mid-July, I emailed the paper’s new arts editor, Hannah Francis, advising her that Melbourne Lyric Opera was to perform a new production of Monteverdi’s masterpiece, The Coronation of Poppea. I asked her when would she like to run a review, and how many words. She replied, saying that the arts pages were full early in the week and there was no room for a review.

Michael ShmithMichael Shmith was The Age's opera critic from 2010 to 2017I replied, expressing disappointment, but asking if there was any way a review could be run, possibly later in the week. No reply. So, I went to the opening night, and, the following day, filed a modest, 300-word review with an accompanying note, expressing hope that space might be found before the season ended the following Friday. On the Monday, I received a response from Ms Francis that included the phrase ‘No means no’. In future, she said, she would require more notice to consider reviews and, even then, that she would be less likely to want reviews of smaller companies; that Victorian Opera and Opera Australia would be more likely to be reviewed.

I then posted the review on Facebook and emailed Lyric Opera advising that the review would not be run in The Age or online. I then emailed Alex Lavelle, recounting what had happened. I concluded:

I am more dismayed by [Hannah Francis’] cavalier attitude to those smaller opera companies who are just as deserving of the right to a review, favourable or hostile, as larger companies. Does she intend to ignore them? Also, does she intend to apply this rationale across the board, say to low-budget films or small dance or theatre companies? Or is it exclusive to opera? Either way, it creates a wretched omen for arts companies in this city. It also reflects badly on The Age’s long and proud record as a paper of culture.
Given these points, and Ms Francis’ obduracy, I feel I am unable to continue as opera critic for The Age. Under such selective and punitive circumstances, I would simply not be able to do my job as expected and as required. As such, I offer my resignation. It is a sad way to end what has been a 36-year relationship with a paper I love and cherish, but I cannot see any other satisfactory resolution.

 

My resignation was accepted.

What concerns me the most, and far more than any brusque, short-sighted response of someone unable or unwilling to see the potential harm in discriminating against smaller opera companies, is the directly detrimental effect such a decision would have on these companies. Lyric Opera can afford to stage only two productions in 2017: The Japanese Princess and The Coronation of Poppea. Neither has been reviewed in The Age or its digital equivalents, although reviews were run in other publications and online. What does this augur for the future of such companies or their performers? It is not enough to favour Opera Australia or Victorian Opera when other companies also deserve their moment in the sun. After all, it is the smaller companies that one day become bigger ones. Encouragement, not disregard, is the crucial thing.

I was heartened (slightly) that since my resignation, The Age has published a review, by Barney Zwartz, of Wagner’s Lohengrin, staged recently by Melbourne Opera at the Regent Theatre. But, as far as The Age is concerned, is this the exception rather than rule?

Damian Whiteley Sara Walker 550Damian Whiteley in Lyric Opera of Melbourne's The Coronation of Poppea (photography by Sara Walker)

 

The time when an arts editor took the advice of a critic that something was perhaps worth more space or sense of urgency than usual has, alas, given way to indiscriminate consideration, with no guarantee of publication. This suggests to me that The Age is in danger of devaluing an artform that (as Monteverdi so persuasively reminded me only a few weeks ago) is 400 years old and still going strong. Many operas end in tragedy: I’ve lost count of the number of decapitations or death by the sword, the musket, the flame or strangulation. Yet, this does not mean the future of opera itself in Melbourne should be placed in mortal peril. After all, not publishing reviews or running them online is a form of slow cultural asphyxiation.

For these reasons, I felt unable to continue as opera critic for The Age. ‘No means no’, I was told. Well, enough is enough.

Michael Shmith was arts editor of The Age from 1985 to 1993. He was the paper’s opera critic from 2010 to 2017.

ABR welcomes comments on all its features, and Hannah Francis was of course invited to reply to this article, in the form of an online comment or a letter to the editor. She told ABR she has decided not to do so.

ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.

Published in ABR Arts

Comments (15)

  • Leave a comment

    What a pithy little dummy spit this is. She said 'no'? That's her prerogative as the editor, and if (after all your years of experience) you can't see it for what it is (cuts to space, budget, time, and change of direction) then that's due to your lack of foresight, and not hers. Your inability to accept change and to accept 'no' graciously reflect poorly on your current priorities.

    You've spent longer here assassinating the character and judgement of your new editor than you have on attacking the state of current affairs which have bought about the changes.

    Examine your motives and write a piece with equal venom about that.

    Friday, 18 August 2017 19:21 posted by sarah m
  • Leave a comment

    I do not know Michael Shmith personally, nor do I know Hannah Francis personally. I am aware that I will be speaking against the other comments here - yet I do not find that Michael Shmith's article here is petty, vindictive, bitchy, out of touch, creating an "attack", throwing a "hissy", "vengeful", "solipsistic", etc. It may be - sadly - that cultural music critcs' "day[s are] over", but if so, perhaps it is restricted to Melbourne...? It is certainly not the case in many parts of the world where opera is thankfully not regarded as a dodo's get for an illuminati's banquet, but it is for all in all of its joy, melancholy, fury, and vitality.
    Decreased coverage of opera's smaller companies' performances can scarcely fail to be linked to a resulting decrease in interest in and awareness of such performances. This is certainly something I find regrettable.
    Of course budget constraints are a concern, but a quick look at the usual (modest) reviews of live events in Melbourne shows that opera is definitely not over-represented, while performances of non-opera music events make up the lion's share of reviewed events; it is without question that these events include some lower-budget and small-scale performances. Perhaps a fairer allocation of space and budget should be considered.
    Mr Shmith's major concern - as I read it - was the equivalent of seeing a woman being strangled by someone, features obscure through a dimly lit window, and wanting with all his heart to see that the strangulation would be stopped. Is he to be blamed for petulance if his attempt could not succeed because of bureaucratic or budgetary constraints, and he could not find it in himself to remain in a situation where he felt helpless to redress further strangulations?
    Not by me. He had the right to say he could not continue in these circumstances. I think he also had the right to clarify his position publicly.
    In the meantime, I sympathise with Ms Francis' budget constraints position while still wishing we had the incisive and knowledgeable Mr Shmith's reviews to look forward to in the future.

    Friday, 18 August 2017 14:44 posted by An observer
  • Leave a comment

    "I then posted the review on Facebook and emailed Lyric Opera advising that the review would not be run in The Age or online."

    In other words, you accepted the free ticket that was provided on the expectation of a review being published, went to the show then emailed the opera company saying sadly the review wouldn't be published despite knowing the editor had knocked it back from the outset?

    Thursday, 17 August 2017 17:28 posted by Kelly
  • Leave a comment

    The cuts to the arts are playing out across multiple platforms. Fairfax's highly protested cutting of specialist reporters, ABC's budget cuts resulting in arts shows having reduced runs and specialist workers seeing their contracts not renewed, and funding cuts to the Australia Council, are just a few high profile examples.

    The lead on your FB post makes it seem as if Shmith's report will explain why ABR have expanded their coverage. I was expecting to see an indepth analysis of the above and was keenly interested to read. But this article seems to be about Shmith quitting because an editor said no twice on the same review. This implyes that you have increased coverage because a reviewer got knocked back on a review. Surely that is not true. There are many excellent reasons to expand coverage, which seemed to be mere background noise in this pieace about a reviewer quitting.

    Thursday, 17 August 2017 11:39 posted by Robin
  • Leave a comment

    Could you clarify whether the invitation to Hannah Francis to reply was made prior to publication as your editor's note is unclear on that point.

    Thursday, 17 August 2017 11:36 posted by Jenny Hocking
  • Leave a comment

    I'm another Age arts journo who Hannah Francis has said “no” to. She says no because the arts budget at The Age was squished beyond recognition, because there isn't room to publish and there isn't any money to pay freelancers. All of which are out of her control. She was at the public face of the #FairGoFairfax campaigns and fought for all the freelance critics and for all the lesser-known, small and independent companies and artists that are now missing out on coverage in The Age.

    It isn't just opera. It sure isn't just one journo.

    This piece doesn’t reflect the state of arts editing at The Age. Hissy fits are one thing (and no editor should respond to a hissy) but to publish without any fact checking or consulting with Hannah before publication is poor journalism. This is click bait. And it's worked because it's getting read and discussed.

    As for appropriating “no means no” to criticise a woman. It’s either ignorance or a deliberate reference to how a woman shouldn’t say no to him.

    Thursday, 17 August 2017 11:20 posted by Anne-Marie Peard
  • Leave a comment

    "invited to reply to this article, in the form of an online comment or a letter to the editor" ABR: you have failed your duties as a publisher in publishing this attack, and you think it is okay because the subject of your attack could write a letter to the editor? Here's my letter to the editor: I look forward to not renewing my subscription.

    Thursday, 17 August 2017 08:11 posted by Sarah K
  • Leave a comment

    ABR welcomes comments on all its features, and Hannah Francis was of course invited to reply to this article, in the form of an online comment or a letter to the editor. She told ABR she has decided not to do so.

    Wednesday, 16 August 2017 16:47 posted by Australian Book Review
  • Leave a comment

    Sadly Micheal isn't only guilty of petulance and bitchiness: he's also demonstrated a sadly out of touch attitude to the changing media world. It might be fair enough to say that failing to publish opera reviews is a form of cultural asphyxiation, but is publishing them online in the same category? Surely one solution to this problem of finite space would be for The Age to use its website to host a section dedicated to more comprehensive coverage of opera. Who knows, build it and an audience might follow. (And I agree with the commenters above who say it was probably inappropriate and unfair to Hannah Francis to publish this article in the first place, certainly not without a right of reply.)

    Wednesday, 16 August 2017 15:32 posted by Misha Ketchell
  • Leave a comment

    Michael Shmith's personal attack on Hannah Francis is appalling: it's petty, vindictive and ill-informed. How is it in any way Francis's fault that the Age has so drastically cut back on its arts coverage? Did you miss the campaign earlier this year by Fairfax arts journalists warning what the result of the cutbacks on arts journalists would be, especially for small companies? While Francis as Age arts editor was a prominent voice for the arts during the Fairfax strike earlier this year, I don't remember Michael Shmith speaking out. For Shmith to blame and name Francis for something that is utterly beyond her control, and that she publicly protested, is beyond disingenuous. And his actions as outlined in his own words put Shmith in a poor light: maybe he should ask himself what it means when a woman is forced to say to him: "no means no".
    Yes, there is a crisis in our arts commentary. But giving space to this kind of vengeful and petty point scoring helps no one and illuminates nothing, aside from one man's bizarrely solipsistic sense of entitlement. Everyone who writes about the arts, not only Shmith, is facing the same structural problems. I'm shocked ABR published this article.

    Wednesday, 16 August 2017 11:39 posted by Alison J Croggon

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