Does music have a right to be played?
The latest klassical kerfuffle comes at once from two exceptionally fertile sources for such fun, England and opera. That's not a swipe at either; quite the contrary, it speaks to the vitality of the classical music scene in both.
The auteur of the controversy is British composer Michael Nyman, the minimalist composer of film scores (The Cook , the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, The Piano), operas (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) and various albums and collaborations with his Michael Nyman Band. If you thought of him as England's Philip Glass, with a roughly equivalent level of success and notoriety, you wouldn't be far off. But whereas Glass has had his operas (The Voyage, Satyagraha) done at the Metropolitan, Nyman has been unable to crack the British equivalent, the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Not that he hasn't tried; he's just been turned down, most recently by the Opera's director, Kasper Holten. And he's not taking "no" silently, having posted this last Friday on his Facebook page (available to anyone with a Facebook account):
(Michael Nyman) has just been informed that the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, will never commission an opera and will therefore spend whatever remains of his creative life without a single note of any of his operas, written or unwritten, represented on the stage of ANY opera house in the UK, EVER. Maybe I should withdraw my tax from supporting such public institutions in 'my' country!
OK, he's said his piece, made his (probably meaningless) threat, and it will all evaporate soon if it hasn't already. Composers, like other talented and ambitious people, have egos that occasionally get bruised; even relatively successful ones might feel insecure about the level of respect they feel they're due. We knew that already. But for someone who spends his days programming music for the radio, there's another side to this story and others like it. Not the right side or the wrong side, just another side.
WFCR is not the Met or the Royal Opera; the stakes are smaller, and radio presents its own unique set of issues. But for every radio station, every opera house, every music presenter of any kind, the same thing applies: Someone has to decide what goes on and what doesn't. It's our job. You might not like how we're doing our job, and it's your right to complain. If enough people do, and the people in charge feel we're no longer getting the job done, out we go. And in comes someone else, who'll also have to make the tough decisions, which will no doubt tick off a different part of the audience. That's show biz.
It also goes without saying the composers have the right to compose exactly what and how they wish. That right, however, does not come with any guaranteed right of performance or broadcast. If I, like Covent Garden's Holten, feel that a selection is not up to my standards, or would not well serve my listeners, I'm not going to play it, no matter who the composer or performers are, or how many strings they can pull. It's not like I constantly have to fend off persistent and unworthy claimants to our airwaves, but it has happened. And if I didn't feel supported in my ability to make decisions (which I very much do), or had to make these decisions as part of a committee (which I don't), I'd have to move on. Perhaps others can work that way; I can't. I need my independence, and fully support other programmers who exert their independent judgment, even if I sometimes question their decisions.
One could argue that since WFCR, like the Royal Opera, is subsidized by the government (and in our case, by listeners), that citizens should be able to claim a spot in its programming. "I've written this opera," they might say, or "I've just put out this CD, and I deserve a spot." That might be how it works at some opera houses or at some public radio stations. For WFCR's part, the "public" we primarily serve is the listening public, and we're dedicated to serving them with the best programming possible. That means with programming that's edited and curated to meet the audience's high expectations. It's not the only way to do it, but it seems to work for a very large number of listeners. They feel strongly enough about it, in fact, that they support it voluntarily, unlike the mandatory license that radio listeners must pay for in other nations. I like our way best, but that's a matter of taste.
So, Mr. Nyman, about your problem. I would say that if you wanted the Royal Opera to produce one of your operas, you should write an opera that the Royal Opera would want to produce. Otherwise, you can look elsewhere. If there isn't a viable alternative, you could perhaps gather supporters and put your opera on yourself. I know opera's an expensive art form, but no one forced you to pursue it. I'm sure the Royal Opera has turned down many operas, no doubt many more than they've produced. Maybe I agree that the Royal Opera is making a mistake. But I don't for a second question that their right to decide supercedes your right to be performed.