I want to be an opera singer: should I read my reviews?

“Don’t read your press: weigh it.” – Andy Warhol

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“Shut your eyes, Marion.” – Indiana Jones

Should I read my reviews? No. No, you shouldn’t.

That was the advice young opera singers used to be given, and it’s still good advice today.

But times have changed. When I was starting out, reviews were printed on paper, and were therefore much easier to avoid, or failing that, throw away and forget.

In the modern world most reviews sooner or later appear online in some form or another. Committed Luddites aside, it takes an inspired effort in the days following an opening night to avoid stumbling across some bits of what’s been said about your performance. Even if you’ve not deliberately sought them out (Should I Google myself? No, but you will) something will float along your stream at some point. A well-meaning friend or colleague will let something slip, or forward you the flattering extracts, thinking that surely you must want to read the good bits.

(I’ve even seen people sending unflattering reviews to singers “in case you haven’t seen what the awful man said about you”. Don’t do this.)

So let’s face it, avoiding your notices altogether is going to prove nearly impossible. In which case, how should you deal with reading your reviews – the good, the bad and the ugly?

You talking to me?

The most relevant skill you’ll learn at music college is dealing with seemingly endless sources of input, criticism and advice. If I had to describe an opera singer’s job, in terms of the day-to-day activity in a rehearsal room, I’d say I do something and then we stop and a dozen people tell me how I was doing it wrong and why. (On a bad day they don’t even wait until we’ve stopped.) Being an opera singer often feels like being a full-time processor of endless feedback. Over the course of a long rehearsal period it’s a lot tougher than it looks, but incorporating that raft of notes from the creative team is a vital part of building a performance.

What it also means is that it’s almost instinctive for singers to adopt that same attitude when they read reviews. Don’t do it. Critics have a job to do, and that is to write for their general readership, not for the subjects of the review. They aren’t writing for you, and their comments are not meant as notes or feedback, even if they sometimes read as such. They’re entitled to their opinion – in fact, they’re contractually obliged to state it as memorably as possible – and you’re equally entitled to take it or leave it.

Building your own team of people whose opinions you trust, and whose feedback you decide to value, is essential to your survival and success as a singer. That team should include your teacher, your regular coaches, your agent, and your close family and friends. That’s because, in their various ways, they have your best interests at heart. Hold their opinions close; and while respecting everyone else’s right to their subjective opinion, try to keep those comments a thick skin’s distance from your heart, or it will drive you to despair.

Please yourself

In other words, it’s not your job to please critics. It is your job to work with the director and conductor in discovering the most effective way of executing your collective vision of the piece. So you should concern yourself with what they think of your work, absorb their feedback and implement their notes as best you can. From the point of view of your long-term career, far better to get the director’s and conductor’s approval and bad reviews than vice versa.

Even more than that, you should make it a priority to develop your capacity for self-assessment – so that even if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself on the end of disapproval from any or all quarters, you’re still able to take a step back and work out whether you really were doing it wrong, or you just found yourself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong collaborators, or all of the above.

Try to resist the temptation to write the reviews yourself during rehearsals. At some point you’ll find yourself a couple of weeks away from opening night and you’ll get a gut feeling that this is a turkey which is never going to fly. The only thing you can do in that situation is to double your commitment. Firstly, because you don’t judge a cake while it’s in the oven – sometimes a sticky rehearsal process ends in a great show. Secondly, because once it gets to performance, you are the show: if you’re fully committed, the show might still get bad reviews; but if you give any less than that, you yourself definitely will.

Finally, remember that your ultimate professional responsibility is to the paying audience, and your every action in rehearsal and performance should be part of a labour of love to provide them with an unforgettable few hours in the theatre. You might wow them all, or you might only strike a chord with one of them – but if that one person is moved or thrilled or changed by your performance then you’ve done your job.

First impressions count

The first review someone reads will have a disproportionately high impact. Critics, or more to the point their editors, know this, which is why you’ll sometimes get home from the opening night party to find the first notices already online. (Love them or hate them, you have to admire the skill involved in being able to produce a coherent article and set of opinions in a matter of minutes.)

But from a performer’s point of view, it’s not healthy to absorb opinions when you’re in that vulnerable post-performance emotional state (even if you’ve stayed away from the bar at the party – well done you), and it can cause difficulties, especially if the second show follows hot on the heels of the first.

Ideally you wouldn’t read the reviews until after the last show, but realistically see if you can hold off until there’s a couple of days between shows, to allow yourself time to recover your emotional equilibrium if necessary. At the very least, try to avoid searching for reviews until at least 24 hours after opening night. Being patient has the added benefit that by the time you see anything, you’ll be reading several sets of opinions and not just one, giving them a much more balanced impact.

Keep it under your hat

As a general rule, try not to discuss reviews at work. I hope that’s common sense if they’ve been bad, but even if they’re good, take great care – there will be plenty of your colleagues who for their own reasons are trying to avoid them. If someone else raises the subject in a one-to-one conversation with you then it’s probably going to be fine, but otherwise, don’t be the messenger who gets shot.

Having said that, a lot of opera company press departments produce a round-up of their shows’ reviews, and some stick them all up on the wall and leave them there for ages, even when they’re awful. I hope no-one told you this job was going to be easy.

Take care before you share

In the same way, be careful about posting reviews online. Now, all of us have to do this at some point or another – life is easier if you have an agent or publicist who will do that on your behalf, but that’s not as standard as it used to be.

(NB while we’re on the subject, as a rule casting directors strongly dislike you including reviews or quotes in your CV/biog for auditions. Other people’s opinions are the natural enemy of the casting director.)

Bear in mind that the instant you post a link to a review online, the perception will be that you are endorsing the views expressed. (This is especially so with a medium like Twitter, which is pretty explicitly first-person.) So read it through carefully and take time to re-read it from everyone else’s point of view.

That sounds easy enough, but traps can lie fiendishly well hidden. For example, a while back I noticed a singer had posted a review which was very complimentary about everyone in the cast, but then singled him out as being (even) better. He compounded the error by quoting that part in his post. You will occasionally come across opera singers who have slightly fragile egos… no, let me be honest about this. A lot of opera singers have exceptionally fragile egos, and because most of us have learned how to hide it, you may not realise it until it’s too late. Upsetting a colleague unnecessarily is never nice, nor is it a good thing for you in the long run. So think once, think twice, and if in doubt, leave it out.

The same applies to responding to bad reviews – while it might be satisfying to have a pop back, more often than not you’ll only draw people’s attention to a criticism they probably wouldn’t otherwise have noticed.

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“I am not a crook.” – Richard M. Nixon

Bad ones and Stinkers

Like a lot of singers, my brain has an endless capacity for retaining, word-for-word, every bad review I’ve ever had, while instantly obliterating the very existence of all the good ones. Maybe it’s a natural consequence of that feedback-processing mentality that a singer needs, although bear in mind that the ability to absorb positive feedback constructively is at least as important as negative.

In practice, this means that when a singer is under the impression that they’ve had unanimously bad reviews, often in reality they’ve actually had a load of good ones and one or two which were negative – or, horror of horrors, didn’t mention them at all. 90% of reviews, when taken together, inevitably come under the category “mixed”.

But every now and then there is no escaping the fact that a unanimous chorus of disapproval has been received. You’ve bombed. If you’re lucky, this will never happen to you. But if it does, what do you do?

In the short term, you’re going to have to get back on the horse and get on with the job. Trust in the work you’ve put in, and in the partnerships you’ve built with your colleagues. Keep putting one foot in front of another. These are the times when you really earn your fee: amateurs can do it when they feel like it; pros can still turn it on when the bullets are flying. It’s a tough, tough thing to do, but if you get out there and do it, your colleagues will be seriously impressed. Audiences read reviews beforehand too, and I’ve seen singers get warmer ovations as a result of critical maulings, as people seize their right to make their own minds up.

In the longer term, once the shows are over and the dust has settled, gather your team together and work out what – if anything – went wrong, and what needs working on. But take your time, by which I mean months not days, and don’t make any big decisions while the wounds are still open.

And remind yourself that it could always be worse – they could not be talking about you at all.

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If a flurry of bad reviews hits someone you’re working with, it’s doubly important not to dwell on what’s been written (unless they’re a very good friend and they want to talk about it), don’t offer any criticism of your own, keep helping them by doing your job as professionally and reliably as you can, and after it’s over give them a hug and tell them they’re awesome.

I love you, you’re perfect, now change

Good, bad or indifferent, never change anything just because of a review. This is the number one reason why it was always a good idea not to read them – you have to possess a will of tungsten carbide not to let the comments cross your mind when you’re on stage, and the temptation to change what you’ve worked on in rehearsal, consciously or otherwise, is huge.

If you find yourself wavering, try to retain a hold on the view that what we put on stage is the end result of the work we’ve all done in the rehearsal room. It might be great, it might stink, it might be right or it might be wrong, but it is what it is, and every performance is the legitimate result of that process. If the director or conductor suggests you change something during the run, that’s a different matter – but if they’ve anything about them, that won’t be a result of anything a critic has said.

So, keep singing your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.

A pinch of salt

“I always believed my reviews until I got my first bad one.” – opera singer, name withheld

If you’re sufficiently talented, hard-working and lucky to be around long enough to get a bad review, you’re probably going to disagree with it, and even perhaps come up with reasons why the critic wasn’t convinced, none of which are to do with you. The point is that as soon as you adopt that belief, you have to extend it to all reviews, not just the bad ones. Learning to accept compliments politely but with a pinch of salt goes alongside thickening your skin to cope with the brickbats.

(By the way, if you want to avoid bad reviews, your safest career path is in contemporary works, where there are rarely previous interpretations of your role playing on the critics’ minds as the curtain rises. If on the other hand your career leads you towards big, iconic roles in standard repertoire, fasten your seatbelt. )

As your career progresses, you will learn more about individual reviewers, their style, tastes, and default mood. They’re a varied bunch, and there’s really no such thing as “critical opinion” in the singular. Some of them are even open to a civilised exchange of Tweets. (As with all online activity, it’s best to keep it polite and professional; and again, try to resist the temptation to respond to specific reviews, about you or anyone else.)

And you know what? Sometimes – just sometimes – critics do have a point. But even if deep down you suspect that they do, that’s for you and your close team to decide and work on. Trust in your work, trust in your team, and keep doing your job.

That’s all. I’m off to Google myself.

 

 

 

 

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About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. He has recently started a series of irregular posts along the broad theme of "Things they don't teach you at music college." Any suggestions or requests on this theme will be treated with feigned or genuine interest. You can contact him via comments here or at: mail@paulcareyjones.com
This entry was posted in Music, Opera, Theatre, What they don't teach you at music college. Bookmark the permalink.

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