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N.C. radio station reverses decision to withhold broadcast of contemporary Met operas

Ryan McKinny and Joyce DiDonato star in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of <em>Dead Man Walking</em>, which opened Tuesday at the Met in New York.
Karen Almond
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera
Ryan McKinny and Joyce DiDonato star in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Dead Man Walking, which opened Tuesday at the Met in New York.

Updated January 9, 2024 at 10:50 AM ET

This story was updated on Thursday, Oct. 5 at 8:25 p.m. ET.

On Thursday afternoon, a listener-supported station in North Carolina, WCPE, reversed its decision to withhold the broadcast of six contemporary operas this season from the Metropolitan Opera saying, "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."

The reversal came after public outcry from notable figures including Pulitzer Prize-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens and author and journalist Celeste Headlee.

WCPE's protest came 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 planned 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.

After NPR published its report and other media outlets published similar stories, WCPE put a banner on its homepage asserting that unnamed news stories had "greatly misrepresented" the contents of a letter it sent about these plans to the station's supporters in late August. WCPE did not specifically point to any alleged errors or misrepresentations in NPR's reporting.

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 told NPR when this report was originally published that the company had been unaware of WCPE's stance until NPR's inquiry. In a follow-up on Thursday, the Met told NPR in a written statement, "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." The Met also confirmed to NPR that in its broadcast agreement with radio stations, it is stipulated that the stations carry the complete Met season.

On Aug. 31, 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 gained traction online about a month after it was sent. Most of WCPE's objections related to depictions of violence or what Proctor terms "adult themes." "Adult themes" appear to be related to LGBTQ subjects, as well as to the life and death of civil rights icon Malcolm X. In another instance, Proctor objects to a composer's "non-biblical" meditation on the birth of Jesus.

On September 29, Proctor told NPR that her letter, which she says was mailed to about 10,000 WCPE supporting members, had generated approximately 1,000 responses — and that about 90% of respondents supported her inclination to cancel these particular broadcasts. Proctor told NPR that she was 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 on September 29, 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.

Musician Rhiannon Giddens — a Pulitzer Prize winner for the opera Omar and herself a North Carolina native — wrote an impassioned open letter to Proctor on social media. "Radio is supposed to be egalitarian and an equalizer, not used as a weapon, as you are doing," Giddens wrote.

In the wake of NPR's report, author and journalist Celeste Headlee published a blistering, point-by-point rebuttal to WCPE with Current, the nonprofit news organization that covers public media in the U.S. Headlee is the granddaughter of pioneering African-American composer William Grant Still. She pointed out that her grandfather was told to stop sending his music to the Met, because "they would never perform his music."

Headlee added: "Although you make no mention of it, I cannot end this note to you without mentioning the elephant in the room: racism. Not only have you elevated the works of white men while denigrating and censoring the art of nonwhites, but several of the pieces that you've labeled as 'appropriate' are racist and sexist in the extreme."

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."

Before the decision was reversed, Proctor said that she was receiving criticism that she was 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 objected 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 said this opera is also "not suitable for a general audience" because the plot features suicide.

Proctor said 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, was "non-biblical" and "unsuitable" for her listeners.

Other works that WCPE contested 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." (On Sept. 29, the Met told NPR that as well as 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 planned not to air this season's Met broadcast of Fire Shut Up in My Bones; in her letter, Proctor said that Fire "addresses adult themes and contains offensive language plainly audible to everyone, including children."

WCPE also planned 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 called X objectionable based on adult themes and offensive language.

WCPE also planned 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.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 8, 2024 at 11:00 PM CST
This report has been updated to clarify what was an exact quote from Proctor and what has been inferred from that quote.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.