The Friday before last I was in Las Vegas when the heroic news came through that gay marriage had finally been legalised in the state of New York — fully equal under the law to heterosexual marriage in name as well as status, without the weird compromise status that we get here with civil partnerships. By coincidence, it was also Gay Pride weekend in New York that weekend, and I thought that at least they have something real to celebrate.
It was Gay Pride in London on Saturday, and I didn’t go. Now that it has turned into one giant Soho street party — a chance to get your tits out and more importantly off — it seems to me that it’s something you can do any night of the week there, and many do. Besides, there’s not too much left to shout and fight for.
How wrong I was. Yesterday I woke to a truly shocking report in The Guardian that a community opera project called Beached that was to be staged in Bridlington in Yorkshire on July 15, had been cancelled after six months of rehearsals involving some 400 residents, 300 of them local school kids. Lee Hall, its writer, was asked to remove references to the gay sexuality of one character, even though the scene in which it took place did not itself involve any children, following protests from the school providing the children.
As Lee Hall writes in a Guardian feature outlining the controversy yesterday, “The opera’s main character is a gay, retired painter, and in one scene he is the victim of taunting. At the school’s request, I agreed to tone down the violence of the language in this scene, but not the character’s straightforward defence of his sexuality. Word came back from Opera North that, unless I removed the lines ‘I’m queer’ and ‘I prefer a lad to a lass’, the whole project was in jeopardy. (It was by now far too late to replace 300 schoolchildren.) The request seemed to come from an entirely different era. I thought there must be some mistake, and that Opera North would support me by finding a way around this completely outdated hysteria. I was amazed when they accepted the school’s position. I was repeatedly asked to excise these references to the adult character being gay.”
Hall urged Opera North to pursue a dialogue with the children’s parents. But he writes, they did not want to do do so: “either I cut these gay references or the project would collapse.” Hall’s offer to pay for Stonewall’s education department, “who work with 180 local authorities, to give workshops to the kids and parents, so any issues raised in the opera could be given a proper context.” This, too, was rejected by the local authority. Then last weekend the school withdrew from the project, and it collapsed.
The opera was, ironically, due to be performed the same weekend as this second annual gala of Billy Elliot Youth Theatre Project, in which youth theatres from around the country that have put on productions of the show come to the London home of the show to show and share their work. Hall writes that the first one last year “was overwhelming, with hundreds of kids singing passionately about politics, sexuality and the finer points of industrial conflict; Working Title immediately committed to doing it again.”
And, he goes on, “That a commercial theatre producer is willing to support such work, when publicly funded bodies are trying to censor a community venture on the theme of tolerance, is deeply confusing to someone brought up in the heady atmosphere of 1970s theatre-in-education. For me, the whole point of this kind of theatre is to challenge expectations and to invite discussion about issues that are more often swept under the carpet.”
Ironically, too, just last night I went to see another opera, Two Boys, in its dazzling world premiere production at English National Opera. Nico Muhly’s opera deals with what happens in teenage internet chatrooms; lots of sex (gay and heterosexual) and kids are involved here, but there’s been no sign of a scandal, still less of a ban. One character doesn’t merely say he’s gay, but signs of getting a blowjob from another boy, with that other young boy on the stage. Kids don’t need mollycoddling; they need truthful depictions of what’s happening in their world. Two Boys does that, both hauntingly and powerfully. And even though its far more shocking than the words objected to in Beached, there’s been no controversy.
Of course, as the Bridlington debacle ignited yesterday, the fans were quickly flamed over the Guardian story by Twitter; and the most interesting article I read was one from the now former Head of Digital Media at the Royal Opera House Rachel Coldicutt, in which she proffered some sage advice on weathering twitter storms. As she ruefully remarks, “I’m a bit of a veteran of the Twitter storm, having weathered two or three at the Royal Opera House.”
She goes on to point out, “Sadly, the escalating nature of the buzz will probably mean that more time is spent ‘dealing with the story’ than actually sorting out the issue - and that can often be the problem with these Twitter storms. They’re so active on the surface of things that they often just become PR problems to be washed away, rather than recognised as actual problems that need solving. It’s also the case that opera companies are generally seen as public-funded bastions of wrong thinking that are generally ripe for a kicking, which doesn’t really help.”
But her five point guide to sorting it all out should be required reading for anyone working in the arts nowadays, where the balance of power has shifted forever in who controls the story. In the runaway train that now follows a Twitter storm, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to wrestle back that control. As she points out, “Twitter works different hours to your Press Team…. In the old days, your Director of Press had a 12-24 hour grace period to bend the ear of The Guardian Arts Editor - but now, if you don’t get a response out in 30 minutes, you’re an abject cowardly failure. The minute you see the storm gather, put a comment out. Not a comment on the whole thing, but something that recognises the fact that you’re not exactly flavour of the month and that you’re ‘working on’ a statement. If you have to wake up your Chief Executive to do this, it’s probably worth it. You can’t underestimate the speed at which one or two celebrity tweets can - and will - travel.”
Looking at Opera North’s own Twitter feed, they took time to do so — it wasn’t until 10.30am yesterday that a tweet was posted, “Further detail on the story behind the article in today’s Guardian will be available shortly”; and it was followed with a statement that was posted, then updated, a few hours later, until finally last night the company’s General Director Richard Mantle posted a statement himself and also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.
Now at last we have Opera North’s side of the story, too. He writes, “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.”
Mantle rejects utterly accusations of homophobia, and says, “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.”
A lot is at stake here; on the plus side, at least opera is being talked about in a public arena, as are the apparent prejudices, or not, of those affected. And even if its regrettable that these issues are still arising at all, still more that six months of community work is going down the drain on an opera that will now not be seen, perhaps lessons are being learned along the way, and perhaps the school in Bridlington can teach different ones in the future.