Karen Almond/Courtesy Metropolitan Opera
A listener-supported North Carolina radio station, WCPE, is considering suspending broadcasts of six contemporary operas from New York’s Metropolitan Opera this season, due to station management’s objections to the operas’ content. This is a controversy over classical music that echoes larger debates over the culture war nationally.
The WCPE protest comes at a time when the Metropolitan Opera is eager to show its commitment to newly written operas and works 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. Last 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 primarily serving the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill areas. (WCPE is an NPR member station, but does not air any NPR news content. According to the station, WCPE has not aired any NPR news content in about a decade.)
A press representative for the Metropolitan Opera said Thursday that the company was unaware of WCPE’s position until NPR’s investigation and had no further comment.
WCPE General Director Deborah S. Proctor sent a letter to station customers regarding seven operas in particular: the one the Met staged earlier this year and the rest the Met is expected to present during its current season. Proctor wrote in her letter that she was seeking feedback from her listeners.
The letter was published on August 31 but has recently gained traction online. Most of WCPE’s objections concern depictions of violence or the presence of LGBTQ subjects; in another case, Proctor objects to a composer’s “unbiblical” meditation on the birth of Jesus.
A North Carolina radio station announces that it will not broadcast any of @MetOperathis year’s new works (citing “language” and “themes” and in one case “non-biblical sources” for Adam’s El Niño) – but Turandot and Butterfly are OK pic.twitter.com/evYe1MCNrs
– Ben Miller (@benwritesthings) September 28, 2023
Proctor told NPR that her letter, which she said was mailed to about 10,000 members supporting the WCPE, has already generated about 1,000 responses — and that about 90 percent of those surveyed so far support its propensity to cancel these particular shows. Proctor told NPR that she hopes to collect at least 2,000 responses and pass them on to a statistician for more formal analysis before making a final decision about airing contemporary operas on WCPE.
In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Proctor told NPR that she felt safe rejecting these operas from WCPE’s airwaves. “If the Met wants to offer these events as a paid organization with people coming to sit in their venue, for the people who choose to be there, that’s one thing,” Proctor argued. “But broadcasting these things to everyone who might listen to them is something else entirely.” She said a content warning before a broadcast would not be enough.
In the NPR interview, Proctor called WCPE’s programming “a safe haven from the horrors of life.” On several occasions, Proctor also appealed to the sensibilities of any children who might listen to his station or discover it online and said his personal values were integral to his decision-making. Breaking down into tears over the phone, Proctor said, “I have a moral decision to make here. What if a child heard this? When I stand before Jesus Christ on Judgment Day, what will I say?
Reaction was fast and furious when the WCPE letter began circulating more widely among opera fans on social media. On » Also on
Proctor said she receives criticism that she restricts access to the arts, much like the fights over book content currently taking place in the United States. “But I don’t ban those things,” she told NPR. “I’m just saying that on this station that I have been given jurisdiction over – and over 90 percent of the people who responded to the survey agree with me – it should not be on this station.”
Speaking to NPR, Proctor called Jake Heggie’s 2000 opera Dead man walkingwhich would be the most performed written opera of the 21st century, a “shock opera” that had not proven that it could stand “the test of time”. Dead man walking was already known as a popular book by Sister Helen Prejean and a film before Heggie and the late librettist Terrence McNally turned it into a stage work. The opera has been performed more than 70 times around the world over the past quarter century.
In its current Met production, Dead man walking opens with a graphic depiction of the rape and murders of two teenagers and ends with another very vivid death; as with some of its other offerings, the Met uses a content warning regarding the work.
In his conversation with NPR, Proctor contrasted Dead man walking along with other much older operas in which sexual violence, rape, suicide and murder are major plot themes. Dead man walking, she argued, is based on a true story, while other operas that are canonical but also violent are fictional and therefore less potentially traumatic. These operas – all scheduled as part of the Met’s 2023-24 broadcast season, and which Proctor still plans to broadcast – include Bizet’s. Carmen and that of Gounod Romeo and Julietas well as that of Puccini Turandot And Madame Papillon.
Proctor also opposes Hours, composer Kevin Puts’ 2022 retelling of Michael Cunningham’s novel of the same name, which in turn draws on the life and work of author Virginia Woolf. Despite HoursA fiction, Proctor states that this opera “is also not suitable for the general public” because the plot involves suicide.
Proctor says the libretto for composer John Adams’ 2000 opera-oratorio El Niñowhich speaks of the birth of Jesus and which mixes, among other things, evangelical stories alongside texts by several poets and the librettist Peter Sellars, is “unbiblical” and “unsuitable” for its listeners.
Other works challenged by WCPE include Terence Blanchard’s opera Championwhich was first presented at the Met last 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 who killed fellow boxer Benny Paret in the ring after taunting Griffith for his sexuality. WCPE refused to broadcast the Met’s Champion released earlier this year because the booklet “contained vulgar language and a theme unsuitable for the general public.” (The Met told NPR that in addition to providing advance notice and content advisories to stations as needed, the Met mutes profanity and questionable language on radio broadcasts.)
Blanchard is the first black composer to have a work staged at the Metropolitan Opera. Blanchard’s other opera, The fire locked in my bones, premiered at the Met in 2021; it is based on author Charles M. Blow’s memoir of his childhood in rural Louisiana as a young black boy. WCPE also plans not to air this season’s Met show The fire locked in my bones; in his letter, Proctor says that Fire “addresses adult themes and contains offensive language clearly audible to everyone, including children.”
WCPE also plans to reject another work by a black composer and librettist on a black subject: the biography of Anthony Davis and Thulani Davis. X: The Life and Times of Malcolm. The supervisor also calls X objectionable based on adult themes and offensive language.
WCPE also plans not to broadcast the opera by the late Mexican composer Daniel Catán Florencia in the Amazon. Florence, premiered in 1996, was the first Spanish-language work commissioned by major American opera houses; it was originally produced by the Houston Grand Opera, Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera. In his letter, Proctor states Florencewhich to New York Times described as “luxuriously lyrical” when it premiered nearly 30 years ago, “simply outside the bounds of our musical format guidelines.”
The Met’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts are scheduled to begin December 9 and continue through June 2024. The Met has broadcast productions from its home since 1931; currently, broadcasts are broadcast in 35 countries around the world, including via 600 stations in the United States.