I wasn’t going to come back to the Jerry Hadley story, but at ArtsJournal, Terry Teachout and CultureGrrl are not letting go of it in interesting fashion. And you’ll find, at the end, that a suitable moral lies there.
Rosenbaum was of the opinion that bad reviews played a part in Hadley’s suicide (more here, here, and here):
Critics have to call it as they see it. But perhaps this singer’s suicide suggests that journalistic discussion of the shortcomings of artists needs to be done in a different spirit, with more sensitivity, than exposés of professional malfeasance. When we criticize how people perform their jobs, we’re attacking what they do. If they’re unethical, incompetent or merely wrongheaded, that’s fair game for a hard-hitting appraisal. But when we disparage an artist, we’re attacking who they are. Whenever they perform or create, they’re completely exposed and putting their entire beings on the line.
If you’re a professional, exposure of your malfeasance is the critic’s job. Personal attacks? Right out. But I didn’t see any personal attacks in critical reaction to Hadley’s 1999 Gatsby performance, however harsh the assessment. I’ll say this—I never write a criticism without asking myself if I would consider it unfair if I was the performer. Is that enough? It has to be.
Teachout took the opposite tack, soberly shaking his head at the spectacle of a career gone down in flames. After some angry feedback, he had this follow up:
The world is a hard place, and the opera business is, or can be, one of its toughest neighborhoods. Those who think otherwise know nothing about it. Those who pretend otherwise are kidding themselves.
Now, the opera world as a Chandleresque Darwinian dystopia seems a little overblown for an industry that puts people in funny costumes and sends them out on stage to sing, even if supply does vastly outstrip demand. Still, tough-guy prose can be fun to write. But Teachout also quotes detective novelist Rex Stout saying that refusing to speak ill of the dead reflects a fear of death. Here’s the point: I think all that terse this-is-the-way-it-is realism reflects another fear, the fear of failure. And the thing is, Rosenbaum implies it, too. She advocates a kindler, gentler criticism out of hope that, when failure comes, we can all get a soft landing. Teachout disdains failure, keeping fear at bay with the bravado of the survivor. (Have “Spade and Archer” taken off the doors and windows.) We all fall somewhere on this continuum, I guess. But it’s the combination of that fear with something Rosenbaum says that’s really pernicious: [W]hen we disparage an artist, we’re attacking who they are. Whenever they perform or create, they’re completely exposed and putting their entire beings on the line.
Coming up is the best lesson I ever learned. I’ll even put it in boldface, I think it’s so important. There may be a lot of things I miss, a lot of things I don’t know—but I do know this:
What you do is not who you are.
This is a hard concept for a lot of people to bend their mind around, particularly in America, with its Protestant work ethic and rampant capitalism. But again: the mere fact of success or failure at a particular activity says nothing—nothing—about one’s worth as a human being. If you’re pursuing an evil activity, sure, that probably makes you evil. But if you fail to achieve a worthy goal, all that says is that you failed. And failure is probably the most common human condition there is.
Teachout writes, “I wish my last memory of Hadley were a happier one.” Memory is a recreative process—if you want your last memory of someone to be happy, just pick a happy memory. The number of operas with dramatically ridiculous final scenes well exhausts my fingers and toes. But good operas aren’t invalidated by bad endings.