To the editors:
I'm a little late entering the Dennis Polkow Bash-o-Rama but hope my entry can be accepted anyway. I have not read Polkow's reviews for long, since I moved here from New York City six months ago, so I don't know about his old mistakes. I AM appalled by his new mistakes.
Let me give you my qualifications. Taken to my first opera at the age of ten. Subscribed to the Met for over twenty years. Have been an avid collector of-listener to opera recordings for most of that time. Have read and discussed opera wherever I could. Attended opera in the European and American provinces as well as the larger cities. I want you to have my qualifications because Polkow ignored Susan Johnson's two requests for his [Letters, November 17].
It is hard not to "attack the credibility of the reviewer" when the reviewer, as Ms. Johnson pointed out, does not understand what the music is saying about the characters. Kurt Moll's Ochs was a lecherous oaf because that is the way the part is written. Moll doesn't turn Ochs into a buffoon like some singers but that does not make Ochs into a candidate for the Marschallin's bed. It's all in the music.
Calling Anna Tomowa-Sintow a "has-been" in any context is unforgivable.
Two other things not mentioned in any of the other Bash-o-Rama letters. 1. After making up his research for Rosenkavalier from his own imagination [October 6] Polkow apparently did no more research for Clemenza than read the program notes [October 20]. How much do you pay him for this? 2. I don't know anybody else who found stridently antisexy Agnes Baltsa either physically or vocally attractive as Dalila [November 10]. Polkow has odd tastes.
Polkow says he called Kavrakos a "medium-sized voice." This is untrue as I can attest from many hearings at the Met. Then he calls concern over "voice labels" "pharisaic and nitpicking." No, it is a basic area of vocal music criticism. It does not sound like Polkow knows much about it, though.
When I was discussing Polkow's failures as a critic with a friend who works in Lyric Opera's offices I was told "the really scandalous item is, he extorts front-row seats to all the operas!" The price of those seats is $79 each and most paying customers never get a chance at them. I always like it when people want to learn about opera but I don't see why Lyric Opera and the Chicago Reader should be helping Polkow get a music education.
I have been told the Chicago Reader "takes pride in being contrary and maybe that is why they send an ignoramus with a tin ear to review opera." But you send knowledgeable people to review dance. Why not do the same for opera?
If you really have to fill up that space in the paper why not get your cover writers to make their stories a couple pages longer? I'm sure they wouldn't mind.
T.W. Hyatt Chicago
Dennis Polkow replies:
If I have skirted the entire issue of "qualifications necessary to review opera," it is simply because I don't buy into the elitist notion that one should flaunt an impressive background or resume to canonize what one says in print, which, after all, should stand on its own. What I or any "critic" says about a particular opera or production should be weighed only against what the listener--T.W. Hyatt or whoever--hears and sees in the opera house.
Too often I hear people using what a critic has to say as a substitute for their own views, or as a prefaced apology for having another view altogether. If you don't agree or like what a critic has to say, great. It's a free country, and if some thought--or even strong emotion--has been provoked in the process, all the better. If I won an operatic pissing contest with T.W. Hyatt would he or she suddenly say, "Oh, look, that Polkow obviously knows tons more about opera than I do, so even though I disagreed with him initially, now I'll defer to him"? I hope not. Better to enjoy the wide diversity of views out there in the opera house and assume that the people next to you, whatever their "qualifications," have just as much right to their opinions as you do.
The irony of this is that if Ms. Johnson and T.W. Hyatt had actually been reading the reviews they attack me for, they would know quite a bit about my background, because I've alluded to it on any number of occasions. Suffice it to say that I am part of an old musical family whose roots in the craft go back to the 17th-century composer Heinrich Schutz. My great-grandfather was a protege of Richard Wagner and succeeded him as music director of the Dresden Opera, where he regularly conducted his own (long forgotten) operas. Two members of my immediate family are quite visible on the international opera scene today, one as a soprano, the other as a director. These facts alone meant that I had opera--and music in general--coming out of my ears before I was out of diapers. But I was also born with perfect pitch (as were each of my brothers and sisters, all of whom, except one, make their livings in various areas of music), and began studying piano and voice at the age of six. I won't list my various music degrees and awards, nor go into my years of concertizing, record producing, or teaching on the undergraduate level.
It was a student of mine who first talked me into writing music criticism for a music publication he was starting some years ago. He had this bizarre notion that rather than hire a writer who enjoys music (the background of the typical "critic"), he would hire a musician and teach him how to write. Perhaps this explains why some of my views are anathema to some rabid opera lovers. I relate to opera as part of the broader world of music in general rather than as the beginning and end of the universe.
Should any of this mean that my opinion should be more respected or taken more seriously than anyone else's? No. I wish you "opera people" would get off your high horses; the people reading all of this correspondence who don't know what we're talking about must be getting the distinct impression that all opera lovers are vicious, narrow, and elitist--and that there may be something in the art form itself that may contribute to this.