Any number of top-earning opera singers will tell you they love their work so much they would pay to do it. No reviewer I have come across has said the same. It's no secret that even some of the biggest names got into the game to support a prohibitive habit. Take the omnivorous Clive Barnes, who in 2008 penned the last notice of his six-decade career three weeks before his death, at age eighty-one. His mother, a theatrical secretary, had started him off on press tickets when he was ten years old. God meant him to attend the theater nightly, he said (I paraphrase), but ordained that he should never pay for a ticket.
Remuneration for reviewers may be meager or even nonexistent, but the free tickets alone can be worth a king's ransom. The catch, if that is what it is, is that you commit yourself to sharing the sort of opinion to which everyone is entitled, but which only the likes of you are actually obliged to make public.
And what makes you so special?
Early on, a few reviewers may be so naïve as to suppose themselves possessed of the encyclopedic knowledge, Solomonic wisdom and electric prose style that might justify a reader's steady attention. In reality, one inevitably ends up pursuing one's education in public — a process that is never-ending. Periodic embarrassments come with the territory. When we commit errors of fact (and who does not?), someone (most often someone with a very, very dull axe to grind) will rap our knuckles. But how much worse are errors of judgment, which too often pass unchallenged. And where is our education then?
With application, some reviewers mellow in their craft over time, acquiring an authority they wear lightly — by far the best way. Too many others develop a distressing déformation professionelle, marked by ever narrower, less receptive and more calcified habits of mind.
The start of a new season is as good a time as any to look into the reasons why this might be so. And a big part of the answer has to be those free tickets, which ultimately are no freer than the emblematic free lunch.
You pays your money, and you takes your choice, the saying goes. Ticket-buying civilians really do that. As a consequence, they are apt to consider value for dollar in immediate personal terms rather than in theory. The difference was brought home to me years ago when I attended — professionally but at my own expense — the puppet opera Juan Darién, which told of a jaguar killed by hunters and reborn as a boy. Playing in a converted church, the production was by Julie Taymor, then in her pre-Lion King period and working on a shoestring. Wow, I thought, signing for tickets that might have cost thirty-five or fifty dollars. That's a lot of money! Later I realized I had gotten a bargain. The magic of that experience would have been worth twice the price to me, or even more.
Subject to ordinary real-world constraints (time, money, personal preferences, availability), paying customers may attend when they want to, sit where they like, read up ahead of time or come cold. They may zone out when weary, walk out for any reason or none at all. They may nitpick to their hearts' content, if such is their pleasure, or sit back and bliss out. If they won't go to Pelléas or Wozzeck, no one can stop them. And if, God forbid, they have seen one Aida, Bohème or Carmen too many, they can just give the show a rest. When the spirit moves them, they can boo. Hell, they can even blog if they want.
Except for the last, all these are liberties reviewers can only dream of. First nights of new shows, with their nerves and their glitches, are by no means every connoisseur's first choice, since later performances often hit a higher mark. Yet for reviewers (the top guns especially), first nights are de rigueur. Locations in the orchestra, acoustically seldom the very best in the house, are not necessarily the finicky music-lover's first choice either, but with rare exceptions, such are the locations reviewers occupy. On the plus side, reviewers are usually seated on an aisle, poised for a quick getaway the instant the curtain falls. Few indeed are those who linger with the civilians to bask in the afterglow. Your deadline looms, and you sprint to your laptop.
The rarer a pleasure, the greater its savor. How many opera fans who buy their tickets can afford to see all they want? Free-riding reviewers may discover sooner or later that the special occasions of yore have devolved into the daily grind. When that happens, it's hard to stay fresh.
At the opera, civilians are off the clock, in the moment — a buzzing beehive of free agents with none but themselves to answer to. Reviewers stand apart, conducting their research for the solitary mosquito's whine of judgment they will deliver later on. Hence the common spectacle of the reviewer in the dark, snatching at straws of impressions that flit by faster than pen can take them down. But such notes have a way of turning into gibberish when the lights go on. Worse, each one comes at the price of moments missed in the very act of scribbling.
Spellbound by a great performance, civilians have better things to do than curate future memories. They watch and listen, all eyes and ears, getting their money's worth, every penny.