In recent weeks, a pair of Twitter spats have ruffled the feathers of the opera-reviewing community. Top critic and prolific tweeter Hugh Canning has vowed to avoid engaging in public conversation with artists. Leading opera composer Mark-Anthony Turnage has declared that Coraline will be his last opera (although he says the decision predates the Twitter exchange). Leading mezzo Dame Sarah Connolly has made her Twitter feed visible to confirmed followers only. Mark Valencia, whose Bachtrack review at Snape started one of these exchanges, has publicly put an end to reviewing student productions. Everyone seems surprised – so what’s happening?

All the artists and educators I spoke to agreed that it was a good thing for critics to exist and to review performances, including student ones. Tenor Ben Hulett pointed at the usefulness for artists to be able to quote reviews early in one’s career, and both he and Connolly pointed at the importance of reviews for future music historians in documenting how music was received. However, Connolly felt that while there was no need for “everything to be nice and furry”, young performers needed to be “handled with care”. My own £0.02 worth is that Valencia’s review was pretty measured, with the exception of the word “shriek”, which clearly touched raw nerves.

The spat involving Turnage also came down to use of language rather than to the actual substance. The offending tweet from Canning was obviously intended as light-hearted – obvious, that is, to anyone who knows Hugh. The trouble, as Valencia pointed out to me, is that a tongue-in-cheek remark tossed off on Twitter doesn’t work, because it’s not accompanied by any of the vocal nuance that you have in your head. Canning’s tweet then provoked some genuinely nasty, catty responses.

The fact is that people say things on Twitter in aggressive language that they would never dream of using to a person’s face – and they’re perfectly happy for that language to be heard not just by the target but by the whole world. I think there are several reasons for this: first, it’s so immediate – just blurt out your thoughts and the world has heard them. Second, it’s safe: you don’t have to look your target in the face or watch the reactions of people around you. And thirdly, when tweeting, you’re not really thinking about the whole world: you’re targeting your like-minded friends and followers. If it sounds right in the echo chamber, who cares what it sounds like anywhere else, to people you don’t even know?

I’d dearly love this to change and for everyone who disagrees with me to be writing thoughtful, well-considered tweets that might convert me to their cause. But that’s a pipe dream: hell is going to freeze over long before it happens. So how to react?

For a start, I’m going to use Twitter more, to try and contribute to some real conversation rather than just treating it as a publicity medium. That means getting involved.

Next, I’m just going to loosen up about the tweets I read from other people. There’s going to be stuff I disagree with, there’s going to be stuff written in inappropriate language or in bad taste and there’s even going to be plenty of plain old nonsense.

And as a writer and publisher, I’m not planning to change much. Bachtrack will keep publishing occasional reviews of student performances; we’ll keep watching the language to make sure that our negative comments are fair, precise and not intended to wound; we’ll keep to our guideline of not putting the writer on a pedestal above the artists. And yes, every now and then, because we’re human, we’re going to let some things slip through that we shouldn’t.

Personally, I will try to exercise a bit of self-censorship and only tweet things that make sense. But that’s not going to change the way the rest of the world behaves. The answer is just to take Twitter as it comes: enjoy the fun and interesting bits and ignore the rubbish. No more, no less.


Images courtesy of Iconshock and xkcd.