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David and Art - Nixing Opera, Part 2

A North Carolina classical music radio station triggered controversy when it said it would not broadcast certain operas.

Last week I mentioned a friend of mine heading to New York City to take in an opera called “Dead Man Walking.” It’s lately been caught up in a controversy because a radio station in North Carolina that broadcasts the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday Matinee radio series announced that it was on the list of productions the station would not be airing this season.

Others operas on the station’s Do-Not-Air list included “The Hours” (2022) by composer Kevin Puts, which features a suicide; John Adams’ opera-oratorio “El Niño” (2000) which retells the birth of Jesus; Terence Blanchard’s opera “Champion” (2023), about a boxer named Emile Griffith; Anthony Davis’ and Thulani Davis’ biographical “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” (1986); and Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s opera “Florencia en el Amazonas” (1996).

After WCPE station manager Deborah Proctor announced that these would not be carried on the station the blowback was quick. Condemnation was widespread. She had to have been surprised. Maybe. One critic noted that if it was really violence and adult situations that were Proctor’s criteria, that would take operas like Carmen, Madame Butterfly, Turandot, probably La Boheme, and who know how many other classic works off the table.

Writing in the journal Current, which covers public media in the United States, Celeste Headlee—who is also composer William Grant Still’s granddaughter—penned a lengthy open letter to Proctor, making the case, among other things, that “Ethically, it’s not the role of a general manager to censor what is heard on public airwaves based on nothing more than personal taste, but that’s what you’ve done here. If you can come up with no better reason for blocking the broadcast of Daniel Catán’s outstanding opera than that you didn’t like it, I expect to see it on your schedule.”

On October 5, the station reversed its decision. “After careful deliberation, due consideration, and hearing from our supporters, listeners and the public, The Classical Station has decided to broadcast the entire 2023-2024 season of the New York Metropolitan Opera.” In its response, The Met said, simply “We’re pleased that opera fans in North Carolina will be able to hear all 27 of our scheduled broadcasts this season.”

The Saturday Matinee radio broadcast season kicks off on Saturday, December 9 with Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas, which had its world premiere in Houston by the way in 1996. After that newer work, however, over the next weeks the Met will broadcast operas by Mozart, Wagner, Mozart again, Verdi, and Puccini, before returning to something new with the broadcast of Dead Man Walking on January 20.

I think I’ll tune in to all those operas this season and see if I can figure out what Proctor was so worried about.

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David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.