N.C. radio station reverses decision to withhold broadcast of contemporary Met operas
A listener-supported radio station in North Carolina, WCPE, is planning to withhold the broadcast of six contemporary operas this season from New York's Metropolitan Opera, because of the station management's objections to the operas' content. It is a classical music controversy that echoes larger, nationwide culture war debates.
WCPE's protest comes at a time when the Metropolitan Opera is eager to showcase its commitment to recently written operas and works from outside the traditional canon of music written by white men. Three of the operas that WCPE plans to reject in the 2023-24 season were written by Black or Mexican composers. This past April, WCPE also refused to broadcast another Met-produced opera written by a Black composer that included LGBTQ themes.
WCPE is a listener-supported public radio station that primarily serves the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill areas. (WCPE is an NPR member station, but does not broadcast any NPR news content. Per the station, WCPE has not carried any NPR news content in about a decade.)
A Metropolitan Opera press representative said Thursday that the company had been unaware of WCPE's stance until NPR's inquiry and had no further comment.
WCPE's general manager, Deborah S. Proctor, sent out a letter to station patrons about seven operas in particular: one that the Met staged earlier this year and the rest that the Met is scheduled to present in its current season. Proctor wrote in her letter that she was seeking feedback from her listeners.
The letter was published on Aug. 31 but recently gained traction online. Most of WCPE's objections relate to depictions of violence or the presence of LGBTQ subject material; in another instance, Proctor objects to a composer's "non-biblical" meditation on the birth of Jesus.
A North Carolina radio station announces that it won’t broadcast any of the @MetOpera’s new works this year (citing “language” and “themes” and in one case “non-biblical sources” for Adam’s’ El Niño) — but Turandot and Butterfly are a-OK pic.twitter.com/evYe1MCNrs— Ben Miller (@benwritesthings) September 28, 2023
Proctor told NPR that her letter, which she says was mailed to about 10,000 WCPE supporting members, has generated approximately 1,000 responses already — and that about 90% of respondents so far support her inclination to cancel these particular broadcasts. Proctor told NPR that she is hoping to collect at least 2,000 responses and give them to a statistician for a more formal analysis before making a final decision about the contemporary operas' broadcasts on WCPE.
In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Proctor told NPR that she felt secure in rejecting these operas from WCPE's airwaves. "If the Met wants to put these out as a ticketed organization with people coming to sit in their venue, for people who choose to be there, that's one thing," Proctor argued. "But to broadcast these things to anybody who might happen to tune in, that's something else entirely." She said that a content warning before a broadcast would not be sufficient.
In the NPR interview, Proctor called WCPE's programming "a safe refuge from the horrors of life." Repeatedly, Proctor also appealed to the sensibilities of any children who might tune into her station or come across it online and said that her personal values were integral to her decision-making. Breaking into tears on the phone, Proctor said: "I have a moral decision to make here. What if one child hears this? When I stand before Jesus Christ on Judgement Day, what am I going to say?"
The reaction was swift and furious once the WCPE letter began circulating more widely among opera lovers on social media. On X (formerly Twitter), one fan wrote: "Art lovers deserve the chance to hear the works of their time being presented by the country's flagship institution for opera performance." Also on X, composer Garrett Schumann posted: "This is so pathetic. It really gives away the game with respect to some people's and institutions' beliefs as to classical music's purpose in American society."
Proctor said that she is receiving criticism that she is restricting access to the arts, much like the struggles over book content that are now happening across the United States. "But I'm not banning these things," she told NPR. "I'm just saying that on this station that I've been granted jurisdiction over — and 90-plus percent of the people who have answered the survey agree with me — it shouldn't be on this station."
In speaking to NPR, Proctor called Jake Heggie's 2000 opera Dead Man Walking, which is reportedly the most performed opera written in the 21st century, a "shock opera" that had not proven that it could withstand "the test of time." Dead Man Walking was already known as a popular book by Sister Helen Prejean and a movie before Heggie and the late librettist Terrence McNally turned it into a stage work. The opera has been produced more than 70 times worldwide over the past nearly quarter century.
In its current Met production, Dead Man Walking opens with a graphic depiction of rape and the murders of two teenagers and concludes with another vividly depicted death; as with some of its other offerings, the Met uses a content warning about the work.
In her conversation with NPR, Proctor contrasted Dead Man Walking with other, much older operas in which sexual violence, rape, suicide and murder are major plot points. Dead Man Walking, she argued, is based on a true story, while other operas that are canonical repertoire but violent as well, are fictional and therefore less potentially traumatizing. Such operas — all scheduled as part of the Met's 2023-24 broadcast season, and all of which Proctor still plans to broadcast — include Bizet's Carmen and Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, as well as Puccini's Turandot and Madama Butterfly.
Proctor also objects to The Hours, composer Kevin Puts' 2022 retelling of Michael Cunningham's novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by the life and work of author Virginia Woolf. Despite The Hours' fictionality, Proctor says this opera is also "not suitable for a general audience" because the plot features suicide.
Proctor says that the libretto of composer John Adams' 2000 opera-oratorio El Niño, which is about the birth of Jesus and which weaves together gospel narratives alongside texts by several poets and librettist Peter Sellars among other materials, is "non-biblical" and "unsuitable" for her listeners.
Other works that WCPE is contesting include Terence Blanchard's opera Champion, which was first staged at the Met this past April. Champion is based on the real-life biography of boxer Emile Griffith, a gay fighter who won several world titles in the 1960s and killed fellow boxer Benny Paret in the ring after he taunted Griffith for his sexuality. WCPE declined to air the Met's Champion broadcast earlier this year because the libretto "contained vulgar language and a theme unsuitable for a general audience." (The Met told NPR that as well providing advance notice and content advisories to stations as needed, the Met mutes curse words and questionable language within the radio broadcasts.)
Blanchard is the first Black composer to have work staged at the Metropolitan Opera. Blanchard's other opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, premiered at the Met in 2021; it is based on author Charles M. Blow's memoir of growing up in rural Louisiana as a young Black boy. WCPE also plans not to air this season's Met broadcast of Fire Shut Up in My Bones; in her letter, Proctor says that Fire "addresses adult themes and contains offensive language plainly audible to everyone, including children."
WCPE also plans to reject another work by a Black composer and librettist about a Black subject: Anthony Davis' and Thulani Davis' biographical X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. Proctor also calls X objectionable based on adult themes and offensive language.
WCPE also plans not to broadcast the late Mexican composer Daniel Catán's opera Florencia en el Amazonas. Florencia, which premiered in 1996, was the first Spanish-language work to be commissioned by major U.S. opera houses; it was originally produced by Houston Grand Opera, Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera. In her letter, Proctor terms Florencia, which the New York Times called "luxuriously lyrical" in its premiere nearly 30 years ago, "simply outside the bounds of our musical format guidelines."
The Met's Saturday afternoon broadcasts are slated to begin on Dec. 9 and run through June 2024. The Met has been broadcasting productions from its house since 1931; currently, the broadcasts are heard in 35 countries worldwide, including via 600 stations in the U.S.
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