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Critics

Some of you may wish to look away now; I may say nice things about critics.

It may not have escaped your attention that I was at Oxford University this week to see my daughter graduate: anybody who has read of my school experiences will know quite how far she has fallen from the tree in achieving what she has. I am obviously as proud as punch. The ceremony - in Latin - was in a place that had me thinking a bit more about the role of the theatre in our lives. The Sheldonian is a magnificent 17th century building, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and has been the venue for the university's graduation ceremonies for nearly four centuries; the history is soaked into the walls.

What kept going through my mind as I sat in that place, where tens of thousands of young people have emerged from years of learning (apart from quite how dreadfully I treated my own education) is how everything we are as a nation, as a species even, is related to the arts, culture and learning. And then for various reasons, as the week has gone on, I have had cause to think a lot about how critics perform in this world and what their role is.

The digital age has done much to give everybody a stake in the vast collective opinion of social media but I find it hard to imagine historians in 100 years time trawling the vast Twitter cache for a record of cultural disquisition. I remain convinced of the vital role critics play and it should be respected, rather than suffer the continuing constriction it is presently experiencing.

I hear a great deal of opprobrium heaped on critics of national newspapers, and it reached a peak of intensity during the Glyndebourne body shaming incident earlier in the summer. But if anything, that demonstrated the continuing importance and effect of the work critics do (not to mention throwing into sharp relief our own industry confusions). Whilst many will dismiss them as "just another opinion", we all know that their judgments are those we most concern ourselves with. That is how it should be and the diminishing role of critics in our great newspapers is to be deplored. Critics are recorders of cultural history and the presence they enjoy in newspapers or any other media is a direct measure of how important our society considers culture to be. If we are not interested in a critical, considered view of our arts then we are probably less interested than we should be in the arts themselves.

Among opera's critical community, the UK retains some genuine quality. Newspapers are deeply embedded in our cultural history too and the major examples of print (and now, by extension, online) journalism still carry a weight and authority when voiced by what is largely a very intelligent and knowledgeable group of critics. They have been shorn of word-length and their critical faculties cannot always enjoy full expression, but I always sense a dedication to the art form. Naturally, we are at times on the end of unwelcome opinions (only yesterday, we winced at a judgement of our latest show) and we can only hope and expect those views are expressed with honesty and qualification. The most challenging aspect of the critic's role is the ever present and growing mantra that their opinion is no more valuable than that of you or me. We may ask a friend what they thought of something and their view will resonate, but who genuinely never believes the opinion of "name" critics to have substance and validity, even if only to disagree with it?

The traditional role of the critic has always been to inform and educate. We looked to people who had knowledge and experience, the facility to marshall it and the erudition to express it beautifully for guidance on our cultural journey. Their mere presence and immortalisation in print rendered their view more important than that of others. That is just the way it is and I would happily confess that the considerations and analysis of various critics over the years has informed aspects of the development of OHP, even if in an indirect way; a slow seeping into our own processes of collective experience and hypothesis. You see, I think - want to think - that there are more learned and knowledgeable people out there whose occasionally severe, contemplative scrutiny forms part of a narrative upon the artistic ornamentation of the nation. No matter how long I have been in the business, there are still thousands who know infinitely more than I do. The downside is that we may at times disagree - vehemently - with what they say, but critics remain, in truth, part of our cultural development as much as recorders of it and as such, our media must not only maintain their prominence, but increase it.
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NB; the majority of critics have now attended and/or passed opinion on the 2014 season!

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