David and Art - Nixing Opera
Should opera come with a content warning?
A good friend of mine went to New York City this past weekend with his family and was excited about seeing a couple of productions at the Metropolitan Opera. Before he left, he and I were talking about which operas he was going to see. (Anytime a friend of mine goes to New York they have to put up with my third-degree about what shows and live music they’re going to see.)
Anyway, he mentioned maybe they’d go see an opera called Dead Man Walking. You might recognize the title from the 1995 movie version of the story starting Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was widely praised and garnered several Academy Award nominations. It’s a violent, graphic, and heart wrenching story. Knowing what opera is capable of, I expect that people who see it will be overwhelmed by the emotion.
The opera had its world premiere in San Francisco in the year 2000. A new orchestration was made in 2015 and a new production debuted the next year. The Met notes that it’s the most widely performed new opera in the past 20 years. The plan was to stage it in the 2020-21 season, but Covid cancelled that. The opera is naturally included in the group of productions that will be broadcast this season on the Met’s widely acclaimed radio broadcasts.
And that’s where the trouble began.
Radio station WCPE is a listener-supported public radio station in North Carolina. Unlike most public radio stations (including the one you’re listening to now) WCPE carries no NPR news broadcasts. It’s basically classical music all the time.
After seeing the list of Met productions for the season, the station’s general manager, Deborah S. Proctor, sent out a letter late in August explaining that the station would not be airing the Met broadcast of Dead Man Walking and some other operas this season, citing thematic elements, language, violence, or, in one case, a “non-biblical” meditation on the birth of Jesus that was therefore “unsuitable.” She also noted that the station had not broadcast one of the Met’s productions from back in the Spring because of its themes. In her letter, Proctor invited feedback on her decision, and, once ripples expanded outward far enough, she got it.
When word of all this finally reached the Met, it put out a statement saying that “Since we follow FCC guidelines regarding profanity and questionable language, we do not agree with WCPE’s plan to drop several of our scheduled broadcasts. The Met’s artistic mission is to present great opera, both new and classic, and we expect our participating radio stations to carry all of them.”
It sounds like a familiar standoff these days. Tune in later to find out how this is resolved.