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Opinion | Good music and bad actors

red stamp that says "canceled"

Is a great recorded performance a good enough reason to continue to broadcast music featuring a person who has done harm to others?

Note: this piece originally appeared in the Traverse City Record-Eagle as part of the "Tuning In" series.

Content note: This essay frequently mentions sexual abuse.

Last month, opera singer Plácido Domingo was linked to a criminal group in Argentina that is a front for sexual trafficking, including trafficking of minors.

Prosecutors say they have wiretap tape of the famous tenor making plans to meet a prostitute who is part of the criminal group.

This isn’t the first time Domingo has been in the spotlight for inappropriate and even illegal behavior. Since 2019, more than 20 women have accused the opera singer of sexual misconduct, accusations that have been substantiated by multiple organizations.

So what are we as a classical radio station supposed to do with the dozens, probably hundreds, of recordings we have that Domingo has made over the years?

Both as a soloist and as a member of the Three Tenors, Domingo has made some amazing recordings. There are some pieces of music that only Domingo has recorded, and there are others where his recording is THE defining performance.

And yet, is a great recorded performance a good enough reason to continue to broadcast music featuring a person who has done harm to others? What is a radio station’s responsibility to its listeners with regard to playing great performances by bad actors?

This isn’t the first time we’ve been in a situation with the discography of a great musician who has done terrible things. Beginning in 2017, dozens of men came forward alleging that longtime Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine had abused them.

The allegations against Levine went back more than 40 years, and several of the men were teenagers at the time of their alleged encounters with Levine.

James Levine’s discography from his tenure with the Met Opera is vast. They’re fantastic performances, and they feature hundreds of musicians who we might not get to hear on the radio otherwise because they recorded almost exclusively with the Met.

Again, though, how does our station balance our desire to broadcast great performances by musicians who might not otherwise be heard on the radio with our need as good human beings to avoid celebrating predators and therefore undermining the experiences of sexual assault survivors?

Take the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, for example. Those recordings include dozens of musicians in the orchestra who performed under Levine’s direction but who were not themselves accused of sexual abuse.

If we don’t broadcast those recordings because Levine was at the helm, then our listeners won’t get to hear performances featuring those orchestra musicians.

But if we do broadcast recordings featuring Levine, what message are we sending to survivors of sexual assault?

Is it even possible to separate the art from the artist? Is there a point when an artist’s actions irreparably damage their art? And what is a classical radio station’s role and responsibility in these situations?

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.