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NC Classical Station Scandalized By Operas About Anti-Death Penalty Nuns, Gay People, Malcolm X
The station will not air several Met productions it has deemed "offensive" this year.
The Right’s fervor for censorship has now moved from schools and libraries to, somehow, the opera.
A classical music station in North Carolina, WCPE, has announced that it will not be airing several of the Met’s productions this season, citing violence, adult themes (largely code for “gay people” or “racism, but not the kind of racism that is usual for the genre”) and, in one case, being “non-Biblical.” The stations general manager, Deborah S. Proctor sent out a letter explaining this to its patrons in late August.
“We declined to broadcast the Met's presentation of The Champion because it contained vulgar language and a theme unsuitable for a general audience,” Proctor wrote in the letter. “All age groups listen to our station; we want parents to know that they can leave our station playing for their children because our broadcasts are without mature themes or foul language.”
Champion (which I look forward to seeing this year at the Lyric), is Terence Blanchard’s “opera in jazz,” telling the true life story of bisexual welterweight boxer Emile Griffith, who notably killed his rival Benny Paret in the ring, after the homophobic boxer had taunted him with anti-gay slurs. It’s an incredible composition — and it would be one thing if it were just an issue with the language, with not wanting to broadcast swear words on their classical music station, but Proctor’s suggestion that it’s an “unsuitable theme”? It’s pretty clear what that’s about.
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Proctor ran down her issues with the other productions, as well.
“Florence e el Amazona” is simply outside of the bounds of our musical format guidelines. A recent employee who was very liberal in the wide-spanning view of what constitutes the limits of material acceptable for broadcast on this station, said this opera was “basically okay.” Having heard it I found that the “basically okay” would be most “basically not okay” for far too many listeners.
So … Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas (she keeps getting these names wrong) is in Spanish, so I can’t imagine it’s a “naughty language” issue. I also honestly cannot tell you what her issue might be with it, as it is just not a remotely controversial or even particularly modern-sounding composition. I’ve got absolutely nothing. All I can tell you is that it is lovely and also available to watch on YouTube should the mood take you.
“Dead Man Walking” is about the execution of a convicted murderer, Joseph de Rocher, and based on his real-life double murder. Unfortunately, de Rocher tortured to death a young couple.
In listening to this, I heard the adolescents screaming, I heard the boy being shot, then I heard the girl screaming during an attempted rape by de Rocher before he knifed her to death to silence her.
Um. This woman runs a classical music station. Has she not heard of Tosca? I mean, I love Tosca, but there’s a whole lot of rape, murder and torture in that one as well. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which the station did decide to broadcast this year, is literally a comedy about a woman and her fiancé trying to trick her boss into not raping her before she gets married.
Dead Man Walking is, actually, the story of Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and anti-death penalty activist. The story of a Catholic nun is just too racy for Deborah.
Ironically, the station will air Verdi’s Turandot — a opera about a princess whose father is trying to force her to get married even though she doesn’t want to, and so has her suitors put to death for not being able to answer her riddle. So, anti-death penalty bad, completely insane death penalty good.
The station will also air Bizet’s Carmen, which (spoiler alert?) ends with our heroine being stabbed to death by a man for refusing to marry him. That actually tends to happen a lot in opera.
“X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” is a presented in English. It addresses adult themes and contains offensive language plainly audible to everyone, children included. This makes this opera unsuitable for a general audience.
Oh gee, can’t imagine what Deborah’s problem with this one is.
There is something particularly insidious about finding an opera about a civil rights activist “offensive” when so much of classical opera, as I’ve mentioned, has a bit of a racism problem. Puccini’s Turandot and Madama Butterfly, both of which the station will air this year, each feature highly problematic depictions of Asian people and culture — though some very cool artists and musicians of Asian descent have been reworking those operas to preserve the music while changing the setting and staging to make them less offensive.
Last year, celebrated soprano Angel Blue canceled her debut at the Arena di Verona in Italy because the venue was also staging a production of Aida with controversial Russian soprano Anna Netrebko wearing blackface. Or, more specifically, full brown body paint. Imagine a world where the Deborah Proctors found actual racism more offensive than bad words!
“Fire Shut up in my Bones” is a presented in English. It addresses adult themes and contains offensive language plainly audible to everyone, children included. This makes this opera unsuitable for a general audience.
Fire Shut Up In My Bones, based on the memoir of New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, is another Terence Blanchard opera. Noticing a theme here?
Fire’s debut in 2021 marked the first time that the Met had ever featured a composition by a Black librettist. The first time! Two years ago! It is not clear what she means by “adult themes” beyond the fact that Blow is bisexual.
“El Nino” is supposedly about the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary.
However, in this non-Biblical version, when the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary, she undergoes pain and mental agony. The music and background vocalization in that scene leaves nothing to the imagination. Other non-biblical sources are used in the libretto.
Oh no, not “non-Biblical sources!”
“The Hours” is presented in English. It contains a fantasy segment contemplating a young girl’s suicidal death, a second segment with yet another's suicidal contemplation; finally, another segment culminating in an actual death. Another opera not suitable for a general audience.
Oh yeah, because who ever heard of suicide in opera? Except for these people who did a literal study on how common it is.
There were 337 operas in total. In 112 (33%), there was completed suicide alone, non-fatal suicidal acts or suicidal thoughts alone, or both. There was at least one suicide in 74 operas (22%); female characters accounted for 56% of these. Non-fatal suicidal acts or suicidal thoughts were found in 48 operas (14%); male characters accounted for 57% of these. Suicide, non-fatal acts and suicidal thoughts always followed an undesirable event or situation. Cutting or stabbing was the most common method of suicide (26 cases). Other methods included poisoning (15 cases), drowning (10 cases), hanging (four cases), asphyxiation (four cases), “supernatural” methods (four cases), immolation (three cases), jumping from a height (two cases), shooting (one) and blunt trauma (one). Mass suicide occurred on two occasions.
Here, for reference, are the operas that Proctor deemed acceptable “for a general audience.”
The Met’s presentation of Bizet's Carmen; Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore; Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice; Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette; Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Le Nozze di Figaro; Puccini's La Boheme, Turandot, La Rondine, and Madama Butterfly; Strauss’s Die Fledermaus; Verdi’s Requiem, Nabucco, Un Ballo in Maschera, and La Forza del Destino; and, Wagner’s Tannhauser will all be heard on the Classical Station as part of the Met’s Season.
Yep, no suicide or murder in any of that! Is it possible that the actual issue for Proctor here is … gay people? Again?
In an interview with NPR, Proctor defended the decision, insisting that she just really needed to protect all of the kids who are definitely spending their Sundays huddled up next to an old-timey radio listening to Puccini.
“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?” she said. I don’t know, maybe tell him that radio dials exist? Or that statistically, kids today are probably way more likely to watch hardcore porn than to sit and listen to an opera based on the work of Virginia Woolf on the radio? I feel like he might know all of that already, what with the omnipotence thing and all.
What’s truly unfortunate here is that by refusing to broadcast more modern operas, Proctor is eliminating one way a lot of younger people, particularly those who don’t have the means or ability to actually attend the opera, might actually get into it as an art form. These operas are certainly more relevant and accessible than, say, Pagliacci. How many kids today even know any sad clowns? (Pagliacci also involves murder.)
If these operas are “not suitable for a general audience” than literally no opera is suitable for a general audience. It’s clear that Proctor’s motive here has a whole lot more to do with her own political leanings than it has to do with protecting children from naughty words.