To the editors:
Could you please tell us Dennis Polkow's qualifications to review opera. Because he doesn't seem to know much about it.
Last year in La Sonnambula [September 30] he called Dimitri Kavrakos, who is a bass, a Light baritone. Last spring at Chicago Opera Theater he got almost all the singers' voices wrong [April 14]. This fall in Tosca [September 22] he loved Siegmund Nimsgern when he barked and yelled his way through Baron Scarpia and hated Eva Marton when she sang Tosca with drama and passion. He wasted two paragraphs saying flattering things about that old hack Bruno Bartoletti. Is he planning a real friendly interview of him like he did with Solti? He liked the old worn-out Tosca sets that were an insult to opening night. Must be because von Rhein didn't. Hey, even von Rhein's right once in a while.
Now in Der Rosenkavalier [October 6] Polkow has insulted the best Marschallin of the '80s, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, by calling her a "has-been." Uh-oh, von Rhein liked her. Maybe Polkow has decided because Miss T-S was so MISCAST last year in La Traviata she is a has-been. Hmmm. Maybe he just doesn't like sopranos. Reading his reviews he always says good things about the men, almost never about the women. Hmmmm. Maybe he just doesn't like women.
OK, he doesn't know much about voices, conducting, or sets and he doesn't know much about the drama, too. This is ridiculous: "Actually Ochs and the Marschallin have much in common in terms of their sexual appetites and view of life"? OH, COME ON! The Marschallin is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man she doesn't even like and she has lovers to console herself. Ochs is gross and gropes everything in sight! Ochs as the Marschallin's next lover? Get a life, Polkow! What planet is he on? Is he really that ignorant and insensitive? Does he know how to LISTEN to music? What it says about characters? If he did he couldn't write trash like this. If he doesn't why are you printing this bullshit.
I've wanted to write this letter for a long time, just didn't want one of Polkow's mean answers. But this review is SO bad (I could go on and on about where Polkow's wrong, just don't have time or space) I have to write you. Reading a couple reference books and the reviews in the daily papers (so he can say the opposite) and watching a video are not enough to review opera. What are Dennis Polkow's qualifications to do this job?
Susan Johnson N. Sheridan
Dennis Polkow replies:
Although the zealous passion with which opera lovers such as Ms. Johnson and Mr. Kats state their cases is commendable, their inability to recognize that there may be points of view other than their own is not. It's a story older than opera itself: disagree with a review, attack the credibility of the reviewer.
I hope I'll not be thought too "mean" if I point out that some of my views have been misrepresented by Ms. Johnson. I didn't "love" Nimsgern's Scarpia; I was lukewarm about it but thought that he did a credible job. There were many aspects of Marton's performance that I found quite effective, so to claim that I "hated" her Tosca shows that Ms. Johnson didn't read or understand my review very well.
Although the remark is quoted out of context, it is true that I referred to Tomowa-Sintow as a "has-been." (What else do you call an aging soprano who has lost her vocal flexibility and substitutes shrill vibrato for pitch?) I made it very clear, however, that her older quality added much to her sensitive portrayal of the Marschallin, to the point that I forgot most of my technical quibbles. The fact that this was an older Marschallin, and that Kurt Moll played Ochs without all of the usual "grotesque" stereotypes, led to my speculation that they could have an affair down the road, a possibility that I pointed out would be "unthinkable" in typical stagings with the usual portrayal of these characters. In other words I wrote about what I heard and saw that night in the opera house, not about the traditions or memories I brought in with me.
Mr. Kats shows almost as vivid an imagination as he gives me credit for in suggesting that I don't attend the events I review. Right. It's much easier to stay home and imagine a given performance than to simply go and report on it. Why should I report on von Otter's hairdo in person when I can do so by looking at a black-and-white photo of it reproduced on newsprint? The traditional Octavian hairstyle is long and brunette, whereas von Otter's hair was short and ash blond. I did not interview the woman's hairdresser, so it's entirely possible that her hair was slightly longer and darker than she usually has it. My interest in this was that she not only sang distinctively in the role, but looked distinctive in it as well.
Passacaglias and fugues are often quite interrelated; the former is often used as a structural basis for the latter, as is the case in the most famous and ground-breaking piece of the genre, Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, a piece whose techniques very much influenced the Saint Paul's Suite finale. The finale is actually a hybrid of both forms: it uses a repetitive theme as in a passacaglia (although a true passacaglia would do so only in the bass), but in the melody, as in a fugue, it develops and interweaves this theme with a second. It was not my intention in the review to discuss the form of the piece; I was commenting on the ensembling accuracy of the fuguelike entrances. Technically the piece is in the form of a quod libet, i.e., two simultaneous melodies relating to one another.
As for the old voice-labeling controversy that Ms. Johnson wants to exhume, three points. First, I did not call Dimitri Kavrakos a "'light' baritone." I wrote that he had a "medium-sized voice." Ms. Johnson appears to have read one of the letters attacking my review without having read the review itself. I'm not surprised. Second, this amount of concern over voice labels shows a pharisaic and nit-picking attitude that has nothing to do with love of the opera, but is pointed instead as a credibility attack. Finally, I label voices according to the range that a singer is capable of singing, not necessarily the voice type of the role that he or she is attempting to sing. I stand by all of my labels save one instance last spring where I inadvertently reversed the voice types of a bass and a baritone in Albert Herring, a mistake that I long ago acknowledged, explained, and apologized for.