Lee Hall, the creator of Billy Elliott, has caused a Twitter storm accusing Opera North of being homophobic. He is the librettist of ‘Bleached', an exciting project based in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, to create a new community opera as a major part of Opera North's two-year project with the seaside town. His brief was to think: Benjamin Britten, the seaside, inclusivity and enjoyment.
Hall's libretto contains gay themes and some fruity language, which worried Emma Hobbs, the headmistress of Bay Primary School. Some of the language was cut or modified, but this wasn't enough. Hall, though, refused to cut the gay character of the elderly painter, “David Hockney is from Bridlington!” he said. What he wanted to do was to show a gay character standing up for himself in the face of homophobic taunts. This is a tiny part of the opera, but it is the part where both sides have refused to budge. Hall commented,
They said to me, ‘You don't have to cut the gay character, just don't tell us he's gay', and, ‘Can't he be taunted because he is old instead of gay?'. This is opera! If you can't cope with queer, better avoid opera altogether — its cross-dressing, its castrati roles, its camp excess.”
Well, it's not all about cross-dressing and excess, that's about as far away from Fidelio as you can get. Though what some directors choose to do with such an opera is another point. Another Hall observation is more relevant,
Wouldn't it be odd if there wasn't a gay character? This project is meant to be inclusive. And gay kids and gay adults are threatened verbally and physically every day. That is what is offensive, not showing it on stage.”
An ideal opportunity then to educate and communicate with these participating children and the opera's audience. Mrs Hobbs' reaction was to withdraw her 300 pupils who were involved, effectively closing the project.
Below is the press statement by Richard Mantle, General Manager of Opera North, who level-headedly explains the company's position. But first a couple of words by Jeanette Winterson, writing in today's The Times:
No one wants to be seen to be homophobic, but it is hard to read this as anything else. It is a pity that the school itself has refused to comment. Their website proclaims that the school “promotes positive attitudes and progress”. In that case, it would be better if Mrs Hobbs, the headmistress, sat down at the table with Hall, Opera North and someone from the local authority who has actually read the libretto, and put this exciting, well-intended opera back on the stage.
It's ironic that on the weekend that this won't be happening, the Royal Opera House will be staging Tosca, packed with pre-pubescent choirboys in Act I, followed by attempted rape and murder in Act II, and an assassination and a suicide in Act III. But maybe children don't need to be “safe guarded” from any of that?
Richard Mantle, director of Opera North:
Beached was commissioned by Opera North as part of its work to engage communities and young people in the Bridlington area through active participation in an exciting, bold and visionary new work which they would help bring to life. Had we been in a position to perform the piece, the results would have shown just what a excellent new work Beached is and what inspirational achievement is possible through projects such as this, which Opera North prides itself in offering.
The fact that the piece can no longer be performed due to the withdrawal of the major school participant is deeply disappointing for everyone involved in the project to date, not least many young people, and we regret that the efforts of the Bridlington community can no longer be rewarded by a public performance.
The decision of the main school to withdraw from the project – which saw 300 participants removed in one go – was the fundamental and only reason that Opera North had to cancel the planned performances. Opera North has worked tirelessly to urge the school to continue its involvement and continues to fully support the work and the messages it tried to convey through the story.
We do have to recognise that this project is being treated as part of the core curriculum for the school concerned, and to that extent very different from a community project where participation is voluntary.
Opera North did recognise that some of the subject matter contained within the piece would need to be handled in ways which would be appropriate to the age and background of the performers and intended audience. We have been working with both the librettist, the school and participants to achieve a solution which was appropriate.
Opera North does not consider the subject matter to require censorship nor do we feel that the inclusion of the themes was inappropriate to the intended audience and participants; and there was no attempt to excise a gay character from the piece. Lee Hall has been willing to introduce changes and make adjustments to the libretto, but in relation to the scene which has caused the most difficulty for the school, Lee refused to make any further change, as is his right as a librettist.
We regret that some people associated with the project have decided to view the decision not to proceed with performances as being based on a homophobic fear on the part of Opera North. This is utterly at odds with the reality of the company's ethos about inclusivity, diversity and access to all, indeed Opera North prides itself on its stance towards sexuality.
Opera North feels that the decision by Lee Hall to suggest that the production was cancelled due to a homophobic stance on the part of the company is unacceptable. It is so at odds with the reality of our views on the issue, and so publicly misrepresents the situation in such a demeaning way.
General Director | Opera North
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.