Writing Responsibly for the General Reader

How to write for non-specialist readers? acques Offenbach, "La Périchole".

How should a critic or scholar write for non-specialist readers? A lifelong music critic and musicologist reports here on challenges he has faced and comments on two encounters—fifty years apart, in 1971 and in 2020—that he has had with Offenbach’s operetta La Périchole.

by Ralph P. Locke

How should music scholars write for non-specialists? That is the wide-ranging question that Dave Hesmondhalgh raised in an essay for Naxos Musicology International  in November 2019. (NMI is available to anyone who subscribes to Naxos Music Library or whose library does. Click the “Musicology” button on the left edge of the homepage.) Hesmondhalgh lays out numerous beneficial possibilities.

But he passes quickly over the single most frequent form of scholarly outreach: books and articles (for newspapers, CD booklets, blogs, online magazines) that address topics likely to be of interest to many.

Hesmondhalgh would place this in the category of “traditional public musicology.” He mentions two fine instances: the program notes of Donald Francis Tovey (which were then gathered into the now-classic, multi-volume Essays in Musical Analysis) and the rock criticism of Simon Frith.

By profession, I am a historical musicologist. But I got my start as a writer publishing concert reviews. This was, I think, in 1967, when I was 18. At age 66 (in 2015), I began again to publish reviews on a regular basis, now focusing primarily on CDs (though I also write about some books and live performances).

It occurs to me that my experiences, struggles, and doubts—or, worse, my haste and lack of doubt!—might be worth sharing here. My examples are two reviews that I wrote nearly fifty years apart and that treat one and the same work (Offenbach’s La Périchole).

A Path to Music and Journalism (and Musicology)

I first developed a love for music in much the same ways that many people of my Baby Boomer generation did. I took piano lessons. I sang songs at summer camp. I listened to recordings of the Nutcracker Suite and Rhapsody in Blue, then the three B’s, and moved on to Stravinsky, Bartók, Poulenc, Shostakovich, Copland, Walton. Even strove valiantly to absorb Schoenberg and Stockhausen. I did finally come to love some Britten and Messiaen. I learned the recordings of the great Broadway musicals by heart. And I attended numerous concerts and operas, catching yet others on radio or TV.

I first experienced the kick of writing about music when, in college, I wrote on classical music. (This was still the standard phrase in the 1960s to indicate what is now often called “Western art music.”) I wrote mainly for Boston After Dark, a weekly arts-and-politics newspaper with a circulation of around 70,000. (Stacks of copies were dropped off at college campuses and quickly snapped up and shared.)

The weekly newspaper Boston after Dark, vol. 1, nr. 25, Mar. 2, 1966

Readers sometimes spoke the name aloud as B.A.D., or even pronounced it “bad,” precisely because it was so good. A few years later it split into The Real Paper and the longer-lived—as its name predicted—Boston Phoenix.[1]

In the early 1970s, I made what turned out to be a half-century detour into academia, eventually teaching music history and musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. I wrote and edited books, and I contributed articles to scholarly journals. In these efforts, I tried to frame my thoughts and findings in a way that would also appeal to the fabled “educated music lover.” Still, I knew that the bulk of my readers would be fellow musicologists, as well as specialists in such fields as cultural history, theater history, literary theory, and gender studies.

As I neared retirement, while continuing with my research projects, I began more frequently to address the music-loving general reader.  Over the past five years, I have written program-book essays for opera houses in Santa Fe, Glyndebourne, Bilbao, and Munich. And I have done a good deal of CD reviewing for American Record Guide (a highly regarded, seventy-year-old bimonthly magazine) and for online arts-magazines such as OperaToday.com, NewYorkArts.net, ArtsFuse.org, and the Boston Musical Intelligencer (classical-scene.com). In a recently launched Open Access journal, the Music & Musical Performance: An International Journal, I have published a book review (about Berlioz) aimed at a diverse readership: scholars, performers, and people who simply want to know more about the music that means so much to them.

In the process, I have had to think afresh about what it means to write for non-specialists. I started reading music criticism in newspapers and magazines with an eye toward enriching—sometimes varying, sometimes simplifying—my toolkit of the written word. I was astounded to realize just how different the style of those writings was from the highly impersonal manner that the musicological establishment had inculcated in me during my grad-school years. Here were people openly slinging opinions and prejudices; using adjectives, metaphors, humor, sarcasm, hyperbole, and vernacular language; and making allusions to pop culture even when writing about Haydn or Wagner. They were expressing open admiration, disdain, quasi-moralistic revulsion. Yikes! (Now there’s a word I think I have never typed before….) What should I do?

Worse, I got the sense that certain of the critics were not deeply informed on a given topic. They would read basic background information, experience the performance or recording, and report their reaction. Sometimes they got things woefully wrong. Other times they gave an incomplete or skewed account, by inadvertence or because of the need to keep the piece short.

Aha, writing short! Yes, I had little experience with that. I was accustomed to writing 15,000-word articles and 150,000-word books. But what could I say, responsibly, in a mere 1000 words (one-third the length of this essay)? How much information should I include, since I wanted to readers inform adequately yet not turn them off?

These questions must surely occur to anyone who has a scholarly understanding of the complexity of a topic and tries to boil things down for outsiders. Furthermore, a music critic cannot normally include examples in staff notation to clinch a point, whereas a book critic can quote a few choice sentences and an art critic can include a photograph of a painting. For me, one of the appealing features of publishing online is that I can provide links to sample tracks on, say, YouTube.

Indeed, Open Access publishing seems to me to be a boon for anybody wishing to engage in “public musicology” or “public music studies,” as Dave Hesmondhalgh suggests. An interested reader—music lover, high-school clarinetist, etc.—who is startled to notice that there are slaves and a slave-driver in Mozart’s Magic Flute, can now do a simple word-search for, say, “Mozart” and “slavery” and find information, consistent with recent scholarly research, about three Mozart operas (The Abduction from the Seraglio, the unfinished Zaïde, and The Magic Flute). Recently I typed that very Boolean combination and was tickled to find, near the top, an online article of mine, on race and slavery in Abduction and in The Magic Flute. The topmost item was an interview with stage director Peter Sellars about how, in 2006, he reworked Zaïde (1780) to reflect the persistence of slave-labor conditions in factories around the world more than two centuries later.

A Tyro Reviewer (1971)

Recently I reread, with some chagrin, a review that I wrote in 1971 for Boston After Dark. It reported on a performance by the Metropolitan Opera that took place in Boston. (Back in those days, the Met would still go on multi-city tours!) I was 22 at the time and would start grad school in musicology a few months later.

The review represents, from my current vantage point, some recurrent problems with music criticism and, more generally, public musicology. The opera was Offenbach’s La Périchole, in an English-language version directed by (and co-starring) the Australian comic actor Cyril Ritchard.

I did no significant preparation before attending the performance. I do not recall trying to locate a copy of the score.[2] I’m sure I read the plot synopsis in the program booklet after taking my seat at the John B. Hynes Memorial Auditorium (a rather grim convention center located in Boston’s downtown Prudential Plaza). I definitely did not listen, in advance, to recordings of the work, nor did I try to hear anything sung by the two main singers: mezzo-soprano Teresa Stratas (who had recently taken over the title role from the original female lead, Patrice Munsel) and baritone Theodor Uppman (the baritone who, in 1951, had “created”—as one says in the opera world—the title role of Britten’s Billy Budd).[3]

How to write for non-specialist readers? Offenbachs La Périchole (Metropolitan Opera, 1957)
Patrice Munsel in the title role of La Périchole (the Metropolitan Opera, 1957)

Because I did not know much about the work or the major singers, I focused my review on Cyril Ritchard, with whom I felt intimately familiar from his memorable performance as Captain Hook in the TV version of Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin.

Here are my first two paragraphs:

Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook

Chalk one up for the Met! They may throw together performances of Verdi and Puccini that no self-respecting Italian cabdriver would sit through, but somehow or other they have come up with an outstanding production of Offenbach’s La Périchole, starring—of all people—Cyril Ritchard as the Viceroy of Peru. The great English [sic!] actor (or rather stage personality), known to Peter Pan fans for his prissy and snarling Captain Hook, was in fact responsible (almost singlehandedly) for the Met’s revival of this operetta several years ago. Fortunately, the work is part of the Metropolitan Opera’s repertory this year for their annual cross-country tour. So, last Tuesday, Boston opera buffs finally got to see the production, which had garnered such enthusiastic headlines in the New York paper. (“Ritchard Sings at the Met, After a Fashion.”)

It was all exactly as the critics had written it up. Ritchard does in fact sing, after a fashion. He makes a spectacularly comic entrance, riding—after a fashion—on a mule. He also directs the entire show, after a fashion, and he even staged the first-act ballet and the dances in the second, after a fashion. Critics may cavil, but Ritchard’s “fashions” are—after all—inimitable, and his stage instincts, at least for the work at hand, serve him damn well.[4]

Reading these paragraphs today, I am struck by how successfully the young writer had mastered the language of exaggerated praise and casual putdown. But I also see that I slipped into that manner partly to cover my ignorance and laziness or, to put it more kindly, my haste.

In the remaining four paragraphs, I described the work’s general aim and tone:

The play is a light-hearted burlesque of bourgeois morality and politics, directed squarely and irreverently at the French middle class which flocked to the operetta theatres over a century ago, and it still makes its good-humored point today.

I praised the singers in vague terms (revealing no special appreciation for the singer in the title role, the no-doubt magnetic Teresa Stratas), and I complained that the production and singers “seem to be groping for the right stylistic ‘feel’ for the work and don’t even come close.”

Ouch! I should at least have pointed out the inherent challenges of presenting an operetta—a work with much spoken dialogue, resembling in this respect so many Broadway musicals—when the hall is as big as New York’s Metropolitan Opera, never mind Boston’s Hynes Auditorium (some 4000 seats), though I did hint at the problem by complaining about the latter’s “convention-hall acoustics.” Notice that my complaint about the lack of an idiomatic “feel” for operetta contradicted my opening description of the production as “outstanding.” I seem not to have worried about this disparity.

I didn’t make a single remark about Offenbach’s music, even though the work contains some of the most effective numbers he ever wrote, especially the heroine’s Letter Song toward the end of Act 1 (“Ô mon cher amant, je te jure”), her tipsy song after dining with the Viceroy (“Ah! quel dîner je viens de faire!”), and her vow of forgiveness to Piquillo near the end of the opera (“Je t’adore, brigand”). In other words, I took shortcuts. Writing about music (or, at least, about music in the Western composer-based tradition) requires one to think in some detail about the notes the composer wrote. Which means one has to know what the notes are. Sure, it’s possible to react at a gut level on the basis of hearing a live performance, but I didn’t even try. The tyro finished the task, saw his name in the paper, collected his paycheck, typed a new entry into his modest résumé, and experienced the delicious pleasure of being congratulated by neighbors who had noticed his byline in the latest issue of B.A.D.

Same Opera, Different Critic (2020)

A few months ago, I received a new recording of La Périchole (in French, not English) to review for the online magazine The Arts Fuse. The recording, made during a run of performances in Bordeaux in 2018, is sung by a highly experienced, entirely Francophone cast.[5] (A video with short excerpts from the production can be viewed at https://bru-zane.com/en/pubblicazione/la-perichole/.) I found a published copy of the piano-vocal score—ironically, the much-altered version used at the Met in 1957-71!—in a nearby music library, and I spent some time reading about Offenbach and operetta and absorbing the libretto and scholarly essays in the smallish book that comes with the 2-CD set.[6] I regretted not having an orchestral score. But this was unavoidable: few operettas have received the honor of a published full score edited from reliable sources. Indeed, operettas, generally, receive little attention in academia, in part because they sit on the borderline between “high art” and popular entertainment.[7] (There is a recent, so-called “critical edition” of La Périchole, prepared by Jean-Christophe Keck. It is available only on rental to theaters and cannot be purchased.[8]) So I made a special effort to notice, by ear and with the libretto before me, felicities in phrase structure, orchestration, and musico-dramatic construction.

Instead of two days (as in 1971), I was granted a month work on the review. I also was allowed to write nineteen paragraphs instead of being limited to six. By age 70, I had attended numerous operas, operettas, and musical comedies—and of course concerts and recitals—in major urban centers (including Berlin and Paris, each of which I lived in for a year) and at summer festivals (e.g., Ravinia, Glimmerglass, Tanglewood, and Bayreuth). I had gotten to know many such works closely through recordings, DVDs, and scores—and through teaching them to undergrad music majors and to a wide range of doctoral students. Also, I had imbibed a ton of musicological books and articles about genres, composers, and styles: for example, in regard to music in nineteenth-century France, writings by Hugh Macdonald, Herbert Schneider, Peter Bloom, Katherine Kolb, Steven Huebner, Annegret Fauser, and Carlo Caballero. In spite of all this, the 2019 review is the same kind of journalistic effort as the 1971 one: it tries to give the sense of a work—and of one particular rendering of it—to readers who are coming fresh to the subject.[9] Though relatively detailed, it is not a scholarly article; it says little that is new to specialists. (No book on Offenbach or the history of operetta will ever mention it.) And, even in nineteen generous paragraphs, it does not enter into close, technical description of the music nor into elaborate musicodramatic analysis. Rather, it describes notable moments—some quite extraordinary—and does so in everyday language.

These moments include the title character’s three famous arias mentioned above, some extended ensembles and act-finales, and several “diegetic” songs (numbers that we see carried out for the delectation of a costumed, on-stage café audience).

Here is one paragraph, about Périchole’s bumbling but beloved Piquillo (a tenor role, whereas the Met version had remade him into a baritone):

Piquillo, despite being less alert and strategic than his beloved, does get two fine solo numbers, and these are actually more like true opera arias than any of Périchole’s. The first, an angry “Rondo de bravoure,” is similar to outbursts by many an enraged operatic hero, such as Donizetti’s Edgardo (in Act 2 of Lucia di Lammermoor). It allows the tenor to show off his energetic singing and at least to imply that Piquillo is worthy of Périchole’s affection. The second song ends with a touching slow-down (and much gentle orchestral commentary) as he falls asleep in his prison cell.

The review ends with the kind of wrap-up that readers (I have been told) appreciate, plus a lively image to send them out smiling:

This is one of the zippiest, most life-affirming opera recordings I have heard in a long time. Well, that puts it too blandly, because the work’s social satire also targets the smug self-satisfaction and careless cruelty of the powerful.

            La Périchole is French as all get-out. I recommend it with a good vin rouge, a ripe Camembert, a fresh baguette, and maybe a chunk of imported Peruvian chocolate with red-pepper flakes.

Jacques Offenbach (photo by Nadar)
Low Pay and No Pay

One other factor that lies behind “public musicology” should be mentioned: money. Music criticism has probably never paid very well. And, over the past twenty years, the market for writing about music has collapsed, as newspapers have responded to financial challenges by “shrinking the news hole.” This colorful phrase is meant to indicate the trend toward reducing the number of column-inches of text: not just on “the news” as that phrase is normally understood—current political and economic events and trends—but also on “softer” topics such as fashion, books, the visual and performing arts or even (though clearly crucial!) science, health, and education. The lack of opportunity for arts writers in the printed media has therefore driven us to the Internet, where “content” (the term includes written copy, photos, and videos) is often welcome but not recompensed.

In 1971, Boston After Dark paid me $10 (as I recall) for the Offenbach review, hardly a motivating sum, even if $10 then was, economists say, closer to $65 now. (Plus, I did receive a pair of free tickets to the performance.) Believe it or not, compensation has gotten worse since then. One online site now pays me $25 per review. Others pay nothing. I was commissioned to write the current essay, but received no fee or honorarium. For a review in American Record Guide, my honoraria (given in a single yearly check) work out to substantially less than the aforementioned $25 per review. I do, however, receive wonderful compensation-in-kind: ARG allows me to pick out dozens of freebie CDs, DVDs, and books from a list of unneeded items that have accumulated in the magazine’s office. I was delighted, as one result of this, to get to know pianist Mariko Terashi’s spirited and stylish recording of Couperin, Rameau, and Carlos de Seixas.[10]

Of course, I also don’t get a penny for publishing a 35-page article in a scholarly journal, no matter how distinguished that journal may be. But, there, an editor and a copyeditor—and confidential outside evaluators—check my every word for accuracy and cogency. By contrast, when writing for the general reader, I’m mostly on my own.

Fortunately, I’ve become a more nuanced and better-informed writer than I was in younger days. Still, the difficulties of addressing a non-specialist readership remain, and these should be kept in mind by people who read popular articles and reviews about music and the arts. We critics may strive to be reliable, but, inevitably, we succeed only up to a point. After that, the interested reader should consider moving up to publications that might be called “scholarly lite,” such as Cambridge University Press’s various Companion volumes: on Beethoven, on the violin, etc.; or the laconic yet meaty entries in Grove Dictionary of Music / OxfordMusicOnline. But that is a topic for another essay.

*   *   *

[1] Susan Orlean, “Memories of the Phoenix,” The New Yorker, 15 March 2013.

[2] The score of that very version (announced on the title page as “The Metropolitan Opera Version”) is available in numerous music libraries. It is translated by Maurice Valency, and uses a “new musical adaptation by Jean Morel and Ignace Strasfogel”; piano reduction by Julius Berger (New York: Boosey and Hawkes, 1957). Other published vocal scores can be found with English text by Alfred Murray and with German text by the great Viennese satirical journalist and public performer/lecturer Karl Kraus.

[3] A one-LP condensation of this production (recorded in 1957) was available on RCA Victor Red Seal LOC-1029 and on Metropolitan Opera Record Club MO 713. That version is now available, streaming-only, as Naxos Classical Archives 9.81078 (at Naxos Music Library, by subscription). “Due to possibly copyright restrictions,” it cannot be streamed in the United States, Australia, or Singapore.
An extended recording of a Met performance of the production, apparently taken from a radio broadcast, has sometimes been available on YouTube, separated into tracks by scene (Act 1, scene 1, with introductory comment by announcer Milton Cross).

[4] Ralph [P.] Locke, “Captain Hook Meets the Met: ‘Perichole’,” Boston After Dark, 27 April 1971, page 30. I have standardized accents and punctuation. An archive for Boston After Dark, The Real Paper, and The Boston Phoenix (and related publications, e.g., in Providence RI) can be consulted at Northeastern University, donated by Stephen Mindich, the publisher of Boston After Dark and of the Phoenix (and its spinoffs).

[5] Jacques Offenbach, La Périchole (in a performance blending elements of Offenbach’s own 1868 and 1874 versions), with Aude Extrémo, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Alexandre Duhamel; Les Musiciens du Louvre and Choeur de l’Opéra National de Bordeaux, conducted by Marc Minkowski (2-CDs plus book; Bru Zane BZ1036). This “CD+book” set is part of the “French Opera” series produced by the Center for French Romantic Music (whose headquarters are in the Palazzetto Bru Zane, Venice). The recording is available through YouTube, Spotify, and other streaming services. The Naxos Music Library goes further, providing (to subscribers) not only the audio tracks but a PDF version of the entire book. For some other recordings at Naxos Music Library, any accompanying booklet or libretto can be downloaded even when one is outside the “pay wall” and thus cannot stream the musical tracks. This enables one to, say, follow the libretto while listening to the recording on some other service, such as Spotify.

[6] On the Boosey and Hawkes score (1957), see n. 2.

[7] Two decades-old histories of operetta remain immensely valuable: Richard Traubner, Operetta: A Theatrical History, 2nd edn. (New York: Routledge, 2003; first published 1983) and Gervase Hughes, Composers of Operetta (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1974; first published 1962). For some new angles, see the special issue of Opera Quarterly on operetta: vol. 33, no. 1 (Winter 2017), ed. Carolyn Abbate and Flora Willson. I discuss some features of the genre in an extended review of André Messager’s widely performed Les p’tites Michu (1897), in Nineteenth-Century Music Review 20 (2020). This CDs+book appeared in the same “French Opera” series as the Périchole recording (n. 5).

[8] Further details (some of them vague or confusing) are available from the opera site run by music publisher and agent Boosey and Hawkes, to which Keck’s own site redirects the user.

[9] Ralph P. Locke, “Opera Album Review: Offenbach’s La Périchole, by an All-French Cast, Combines Zest and Elegance” (uploaded 26 September 2019).

[10] Carlos de Seixas, François Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Mariko Terashi, piano (Athene CD ATH23207). Available for streaming through Naxos Music Library.

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