The Reviewer That Pushed Placido Domingo Over the Edge

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The Players: Anne Midgette, journalist and the first woman to review classical music for The New York Times on a regular basis--the current classical music critic for the Washington Post; Placido Domingo, one of the Three Tenors and former general director for the Washington National Opera 

The Opening Serve:  Midgette's review of Tosca--the season opener for Washington National Opera--wasn't terribly bad. "Not that this was a bad Tosca; it was merely a serviceable one," Midgette wrote. "Saturday’s audience saw the kind of patchwork production that’s becoming a norm in these financially tough times." Midgette's unkindest words, however, were saved for Placido Domingo. "All the performances were hampered, indeed sabotaged, by the conducting. Placido Domingo, appearing for the first time since stepping down as general director, is a wonderful singer," wrote Midgette.  "But rather than supporting the singers, his conducting either drowned them out or tripped them up...I’m not sure his presence sells enough tickets to make up for spoiling the evening. Surely there are other ways to include him in WNO’s future."

The Return Volley: A week after the opera's run, Domingo fired back in a letter published by The Washington Post on Friday. "In more than 50 years of my career as a singer and nearly 40 as a conductor, I have accepted critics’ reviews, positive or negative, for what they are: personal opinions and points of view," began Domingo.  "But for the first time in my life, I am sending a letter to the editor of a newspaper, because your music critic Anne Midgette has crossed the line between reasonably objective criticism and what appears to be open animosity." Domingo was particularly disturbed by Midgette's choice phrasing:  "An act of sabotage is a destructive act done on purpose. Her remark suggests not only that I 'spoiled' the performances but that I did so intentionally. This is unconscionable."  Midgette responded on her blog. "The most recent feature story I wrote about Mr. Domingo in the Washington Post reflects my feelings about this fine artist," wrote Midgette referring to Domingo's storied career as a singer. "But neither past nor present fandom can blunt my ear to things I don’t like... I am far from the only critic to feel that his conducting is not at the same top-flight international standard as his singing; indeed, audiences have expressed the same opinion." Midgette also shares new facts that weren't included her previous review

When I wrote the review, I didn’t even realize that Mr. Domingo only came into town shortly before the dress rehearsal, and that the performance I heard was extremely underrehearsed; but this fact only confirms my sense that he could have done much, much better. I am surprised that Mr. Domingo takes such exception to this review, since, as he himself has told me, an artist knows when he has done well or badly... And I’m sorry that an artist of his stature, faced with evidence that I admire him as a singer but not as a conductor, chooses to dismiss criticism as a personal attack, rather than the response of someone who believes him capable of representing the very best.

What They Say They're Fighting About: Midgette's objectivity and the review of Tosca. Domingo is arguing that she's out to get him and his opera. Midgette says she's being as objective as they come considering she's praised him before (albeit as a singer) and her refusal to let those performances slide into her critique of his conducting skills is something she's paid to do.  

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What They're Really Fighting About: A lot of things actually: the intention of a review, Domingo's brand, what's lost in translation. Domingo is particularly peeved at the word "sabotage," and takes it literally. He's defending his brand here because adding the reputation of saboteur to his C.V. makes it seem to fit the archetype of a singer who can't can't quite relinquish the limelight. Midgette is waging a different war of sorts on Domingo's brand. She's concerned that he isn't living up to it, that he knows this and that his name is just being used to sell tickets. She argues his tenure as conductor is more damaging than her own review. 

Who's Winning Now: Midgette. Domingo has every right to be upset with a terrible review, but Midgette's was a tepid takedown at best. If Domingo's worst critique is an elevated "just stick to your day job" barb, well let's be glad he never got into film. But Midgette's victory is hollow. Yes, Domingo is still struggling to wrap his brain around the word "sabotage" to consider that she might have a point about his failings as a conductor and brand damage. But her review isn't going to change the National Opera's strategy any time soon. And the fact that Domingo took her review so personal also diminishes the bigger points she was trying to make about opera's struggles, which clearly should be more of a concern to both parties since both their careers depend on it. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.