Do We Really Want Music Censorship?

OPINION

By Kit Flynn

I no longer tune into the classical music station WCPE – it’s that simple. A good friend brought the disturbing letter sent out to contributors to my attention because he was concerned with its ramifications of censorship.

For thirty-five years WCPE has presented Metropolitan Opera presentations on Saturdays. Now the Met is probably the most important opera house in the world. With its slightly less than 3,700 seats, seats it must fill for most performance, the Met is huge — it is the largest artistic organization in the US. For thirteen years I was a volunteer at the Met, coming away from it feeling that it is one awesome artistic institution.

The Met long resisted forays into contemporary opera. James Levine, the long-time musical director, was opposed so gradually with the exceptions of highly regarded twentieth century operas such as “Lulu,” the Met was regarded as a classical museum, willing to stage the Ring operas, “La Bohème,” and the many Verdi operas endlessly among other nineteenth and early twentieth century operas.

And then Covid arrived. When the Met finally reopened, it discovered that “La Bohème” no longer magically filled the house because audiences desired newer operas, such as “L’Amour de Loin” and “Akhnaten.”

Now WCPE refuses to broadcast “The Champion” because of its “vulgar language and a theme unsuitable for a general audience.” The letter goes on to say that “This coming season, the Metropolitan Opera has chosen several operas which are written in a non-classical music style, have adult themes and language, and are in English.” In an effort to refrain from soiling the ears of our children, WCPE will not present these operas.

This is simply an outrageous so let me explain. Opera, even when it’s sung in English, needs surtitles if the words are to be understood. What is a non-classical music style? Is she saying that “Porgy and Bess,” a twentieth century opera that has been performed at the Met is not an opera? Most people would argue that it certainly fits the requirements of an opera.

Does she forget that the opening of “Tannhäuser” depicts a sexual orgy taking place in the Venusberg? Does she not realize that the Duke of Mantua has only one thing on his mind when he sings “Questa o quella” in Act 1 of “Rigoletto?”  Does she even know that Violetta, the one who grabs our hearts in “La Traviata,” is a high-class prostitute?

Listeners have options. They are free to turn off the radio if they want to., just as they are free to refuse to watch a lot of programs streaming on our televisions that contain offensive language. I, for one, prefer to have my options.

The Met opened its 2023-24 season with “Dead Man Walking,” an opera by the American Jake Heggie. As Zachary Woolfe, music reviewer of The New York Times describes it, it’s “one of the most widely staged operas created in this century.” He goes on to add that it’s based “on a best-selling book and award-winning film.” Good luck in hearing it on WCPE as the director has deemed it to too violent for our sensitive ears.

In her demonic way (and I use that term on purpose), she also has nixed our ability to hear on WCPE: “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” “Fire Shut up in my Bones,” “El Nino” and “The Hours,” all contemporary operas the Met is presenting this season in English.

Instead of broadcasting these modern operas, she proposes to substitute them with perhaps “Aida” (about a forbidden love affair), “Tristan und Isolde” (about grand lust) and “Turandot” (about a princess who puts her admirers to death). Their saving grace for protecting the ears of our children is that they are sung in German or Italian, presumably languages the children aren’t fluent in.

She objects to “operas with adult themes and profanity” forgetting that “traditional” operas (i.e., operas written in a language other than English in the eighteenth and nineteenth century) also dealt with violence. Opera is filled with sinister characters – just look at Iago in Verdi’s “Otello.” Opera is filled with unrequited love – just look at Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Opera is filled with women who have sex on the brain. Does anyone think Carmen is an innocent naïf?

Opera is only appreciated by 10% of the population – and a large percentage of that 10% are adults who are perfectly capable of making up their own minds. While I am not a huge fan of contemporary opera, I do not want Deborah S. Proctor to decide what is suitable for my ears. What is “modern, discordant, and difficult music” is up to each of us to determine. How can we decide when we are deprived of listening to these presentations given by the Met?

The Director and the radio station have every right not to subscribe to the Met’s Saturday offerings, a not inexpensive subscription. My argument is that if the station makes the financial commitment to subscribe, they have a moral duty to offer all the operas, whether they approve of them or not.

The Met is to be congratulated for finally moving into the twenty-first century. It made this decision because it was reacting to what American opera audiences wanted to hear. It was also a financial decision as it needs to sell out the house.

I’m tired of censorship. I’m tired of reading that state governments are actually banning Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. And, I find that I can no longer listen to a radio station that deprives me of my ability to listen to new offerings at the Met because someone finds them inexplicably to be offensive. It’s really that simple.

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8 Comments on "Do We Really Want Music Censorship?"

  1. I should add there is no fee for stations to broadcast the Met. So this decision is not based on cost. I would encourage Classical and Met fans to listen to our classical stream at weku.org which broadcasts all Met offerings and always will.

  2. Posted at 5 pm ET to theclassicalstation.org:

    “The Classical Station Will Broadcast Entire 2023-2024 Met Opera Season
    WAKE FOREST, NC — The staff and volunteers of The Classical Station made the following statement:
    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 New York Metropolitan Opera.
    These performances will be broadcast over 89.7 FM in North Carolina and streamed via theclassicalstation.org and our smartphone apps on Saturday afternoons starting December 9.
    The staff and volunteers of The Classical Station are dedicated to our mission to make the world a better place by providing a restful refuge from the worries of the world, and by building a community for all, brought together by the shared love of Great Classical Music.”

  3. I stream WFMT (Chicago-based). A great station!

  4. We are dropping our sustainer contribution as soon as I can manage to contact the right person. This kind of censorship should not have a place on a station like WCPE. I was looking forward to hearing some of the new operas.

  5. Thanks for letting me know there’s an alternative. Late yesterday afternoon word came down that WCPE had changed its mind and would broadcast all the Met productions.

    I didn’t realize that the Met no longer charged stations to broadcast their productions. In the past it used to charge a hefty fee.

  6. Linda Textoris | October 6, 2023 at 3:01 pm | Reply

    As a sustainer, I am so glad WCPE will broadcast all the operas this season.

  7. Thanks for writing this, and thanks to the commenters who brought the news that the station had reversed itself. I was shocked that a station that prides itself on playing more than just classical music would make such a troubling decision. Clearly they got an earful after the fact, and THEN decided to listen to their listeners and supporters.

  8. Whether WCPE chooses to broadcast some or all of the Met opera productions is not a matter of censorship. I am not trying to take sides in the discussion. I am one of the 90% who do not really care for opera at all. However, the use of the term censorship in this piece does not help further any meaningful debate regarding WCPE’s choice. It simply incites outrage.

    WCPE is a business that is free to broadcast whatever musical pieces and productions as it sees fit. We are all free to tune into the station or not as each of us sees fit. Is it censorship because WCPE limits their broadcasts to “classical” music and never other genres such as pop, rock, or bluegrass?

    WCPE is being honest. They indicated they did not want to broadcast these operas for specific reasons. Anyone may agree or not, and that is fine, but it has nothing to do with censorship. WCPE is under no obligation to broadcast any particular piece of music, opera, pop, rock, or otherwise. The choices the station makes on what to broadcast, or not broadcast, is a business decision not a matter of censorship.

    Was the Met’s past decision to resist forays into staging these operas censorship? Was it censorship on James Levine’s part to oppose these operas? I believe the answer is no. Why would WCPE resisting these same operas, just as the Met and James Levine did, then be censorship?

    Inflaming anger by leveling an accusation of censorship should have no place in the debate of whether WCPE should or should not broadcast these operas. Indeed, WCPE deciding to go ahead with the broadcast of them on goes to demonstrate the decision was driven all along by business concerns and not any “nefarious” considerations of censorship. They made a choice, found their customers did not like it, so they reversed the decision to meet their customer’s preferences. Perhaps the initial decision to not broadcast the operas was a poor one, but it was not censorship.

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