Opera North isn’t Homophobic – An Opera’s Fiasco

Posted on 04 July 2011 Written by

I have written in defence of Twitter before (here, if you’re interested), but the Opera North/Lee Hall fiasco today reveals something that’s bad about such an instant medium. Twitter encourages knee-jerk responses which are often misinformed and always unhelpful. These then get re-tweeted, and the outrage grows. Very few people bother to gather all the facts and read the offending article/comments/statement before weighing in with an opinion or a damning critique. Twitter has been full of criticism this morning for Opera North, a Facebook group has been set up in defence of Hall, and the vitriol being directed at Opera North is growing.

Let me make it very clear: I would never defend either censorship or homophobia, but it seems to me that neither of these things has actually been perpetrated by Opera North. Lee Hall wrote a piece in the Guardian this morning claiming that the community opera he’s working on has been cancelled over references to an adult character’s sexuality because he has reached “an impasse” with the school which is providing 300 children to perform in the opera. I would personally argue that schools have an active duty to teach children about homosexuality and thus begin to cut down on homophobia, bullying and the pejorative use of the word “gay”. Furthermore, to remove all 300 children two weeks before the performance was due to happen is unnecessarily disruptive, and must be incredibly frustrating for both Hall and Opera North, who have both invested time and, in the case of Opera North, money, in the project.

However, I fail to see how the school’s apparently small-minded decision is Opera North’s fault. Its statement says that it tried to reach a compromise which all parties were happy with, in order that the performance might go ahead. I admire Hall for sticking to his guns, and understand his anger that Opera North did not offer him unconditional support. The statement could certainly have been worded more strongly, and could have categorically stated that Opera North has no problem with the libretto and would like the school to reconsider. But, Opera North obviously has a lot invested in its relationship with the local community, and to dismiss or criticise the school’s decision outright could do it a lot of damage in the long run. This was an arse-covering decision, not a homophobic one.

If there is blame to be apportioned, surely we should be laying at the door of the school and the local authority who decided that it was “inappropriate” to mention then some men “prefer lads to lasses” in front of four-year-olds. Surely, this is the bigger issue? That a school, an educational establishment, feels that it cannot let its pupils be in an environment where an adult talks about being gay? As Thomas Hescott rather eloquently puts it, the school should view it as talking about equality, not sex. Sexuality and sex are different, and the school should have the wit to recognise this.

In short, Opera North has not “banned” Hall’s opera. It has been put in an impossible position as mediator between two sides who have reached an “impasse” and the school no longer wishes to discuss it. I don’t see how Opera North is supposed to magic a new cast of 300 schoolchildren out of thin air, especially as the previous cast had been rehearsing for months. It’s an unpleasant and tricky situation, but slinging muck at Opera North only muddies the waters and draws attention away from the real issue: why shouldn’t children “as young as four” learn that some boys like boys, some girls like girls, and some people like both? This is what we should be outraged about.

Disagree with this viewpoint of the Opera North Fiasco? Read Thomas Hescott opinions on why Opera North IS homophobic on his blog here.

Originally written on

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is the Managing Editor of A Younger Theatre, as well as a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She has written for The Guardian, The Stage, The FT and Ideas Tap, and worked for the Poetry Society and the British Council.

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Categorised | Blogs, Theatre

7 Comments For This Post

  1. sara Says:

    You are right that as a pubilc facing, technologically linked-up institution (unlike the LEA/school), Opera North has wrongly borne the brunt of the anger.

    But they have invited criticism by not distancing themselves from this school’s appalling decision. There is much more at stake here than their relationship with their local community and they have a big responsibility as a major institution to speak out and set an example. This school and LEA should be publicly shamed as out of line with our society and laws. Opera North have been tarnished by associaton and should have spoken out against discrimination.

    By sympathising with the parts of our society that would censor the very existence of homosexuality, Opera North has dug itself a rather deep hole.

    After all, if we don’t all stand up for the rights of gay people and characters to exist, take pride in their identity and interact with young children, what kind of prejudices are we fostering in the name of ‘protecting’ the children?

  2. Robert DS Says:

    Nice try – and certainly not an easy position to be in. But not good enough. “Arse-covering” is not a good enough reason for kow-towing to such thinly disguised homophobia. For an arts organisation? Come on… I’m afraid, despite your protesting the contrary, you are defending both censorship and homophobia, if only by proxy.

  3. Bob Cant Says:

    I’m in no position to know if Opera North was being intentionally homophobic or not but what I am in a position to make an utterance about is the impact of their position. It’s very interesting how much effort they have put into distancing themselves (very patronisingly) from the actions of the school but it is even more interesting that they have failed to engage with the central issues of equality. I am incredibly old (66) and I have lived through lots of the discourses that heterocentric individuals and agencies use to remind poofs like me that we are really second class citizens. Perhaps ON was unable to resist the demands of Bay Primary School (I don’t know) but nothing prevented them from stating their position about the equal regard with which LGBT people should be treated. The only real anger in ON’s position statement is about the fact that someone might accuse them of being discriminatory. At least, we now know where their priorities are. And I know that I’m still a second class citizen.

  4. Stuart Says:

    My response to the latest Opera North statement addresses my views on your blog: (which was sent to the General director of Opera North)

    Thank you for making a comment as General Director of Opera North.

    It is helpful to have a response from the publicly visible strategic leader.

    It seems that you and Opera North do not understand the veracity of concern that exists today following the decision that Beached! can not be staged.

    I doubt very much that anyone prior to this decision or the PR handling of this incident would have seen Opera North as anything other than a reputable and talented group of artistes (and supporters) who have a commitment to artistic integrity and equality. If anyone had asked me I would have perceived Opera North to have the highest standards of honesty, integrity and equality. However, this incident and the manner with which it has been handled in the public arena does cause questions to be asked about the image that Opera North have today portrayed with regards equality and integrity. it seems in the public statements today that Opera North has tried to be all things to all people.

    Lets say at the outset, that any decision by an individual school (supported or not by its LEA) is not a decision that Opera North has made. Opera North have also stated that they have sought to influence that school opinion. I (and I do not think anyone else) am not suggesting that Opera North are purporting that homosexuality is an inappropriate subject for a contemporary opera, nor am I suggesting that Opera North endorse such a view.

    The view point that the school and the LEA have reach is draconian and devalues gay people. It stigmatises them as people who need to be censored and hidden away. It condemns them to live in the shadows and not be a fully honest human being contributing successfully to society The message portrayed is very much this, since (my understanding) the opera does not refer to any sexual activity nor gay relationships. Such a view logically leads to a situation whereby gay people are treated differently to heterosexual people. Giving this message in an educational environment tacitly suggests that it is acceptable to devalue gay people or treat them differently. This message is wrong, offensive and bigoted. Its patronising and inaccurate to suggest children are unaware and unable to deal with the existence of homosexuality in society.

    I have to wonder what initial negotiation took place between Opera North, the school and Lee Hall. Hall in his work is well known for sensitive and caring handling of sexuality issues. It is clear that in a contemporary opera with Hall’s involvement that contemporary issues and issues of sexuality may occur. These should have been explored diplomatically well in advance of such a decision occurring. Did the brief to Hall explain explicitly the stand point of the school and LEA on the sexuality issues involved?

    I note that Opera North has tried to negotiate between Hall and the school and that these negotiations have resulted in some redrafting of the opera but that on artistic and moral grounds Hall was not prepared to redraft this particular set of lyrics requested by the school. I note Opera North supports Hall in his artistic right to take such a stance. However, Opera Norths failure to criticise the schools stance outlined above which is bigoted and treats gay people differently sends out a message (whether intended or not) that Opera North endorse such treatment and views held by the school. The lack of criticism furthermore undermines all the good work that Opera North has done in the field of equality. By failing to critcise and appearing to back down you tacitly encourage divisive homophobia within society and within education in general.

    Its wholly appropriate that you should stand by your art, stand by your writer, stand by your values and stand by the right of individuals and organisations connected to the work to make decisions (whether you agree with the morality or not) not to continue to participate. However, you are sending a very mixed messages and not demonstrating a consistent position. You also attack your writer in the most recent statement – which further inflames the integrity of your position.

    At the moment you became aware of the conflict between the schools prejudiced position, and that following some discussion that there views were intractable and intransigent, Opera North should have shown morality, integrity and courage and withdrawn to support your writer and artistic integrity.

    I am particularly disappointed at two things from Opera North. The lack of admitting you have made an error of judgement, a mistake and thus the absence of any form of apology. Secondly, the twisting of words to suggest that anyone finding the behaviour of Opera North to be tacitly homophobic are wrong is offensive. As I have said, I have no doubt Opera North are committed to equality – your poor decisions in the handling of this matter do not demonstrate that.

    As someone else has said today, your responsibility is not to please everyone, but to do what is right both artistically and morally.

    You appear to be endorsing the reluctance of the school to have homosexual characters in the opera. That is wrong and your explanations are derisory. Artistic organisations should challenge and engage and not sit on the fence. Your lack of courage in handling this suggests you are not prepared to stand up to bigotry and homophobia.

    I am disappointed at what you have said, but feel there are constructive ways for Opera North to move ahead on this that you are missing out on. I suggested them to your marketing manager earlier today

    I wish you well and hope you find a positive way to move forward on this that demonstrates Opera Norths real values and does not undermine Opera Norths moral or artistic integrity.

  5. Nigel Toye Says:

    You are wrong about Opera North. They supported the school and not Lee Hall. They were weak and tried to be nice to everyone. There is only one position on this.
    The Head of the school was incredibly stupid to think this was just a lovely little thing to get into for the publicity and was dilatory in not reading the full script as soon as she got it.
    Even then she would have been homophobic because they have been incredibly compliant in altering much. She did not want a gay character. Why not?

  6. OperaNorth Says:

    An update on Bridlington, progress has been made but discussions continue

  7. OperaNorth Says:

    Bridlington community opera to go ahead as planned

3 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. ‘Operatics’ | Artsmonkeys Blog Says:

    [...] Via her twitter account @eleanorturney appealed for reason and an opportunity to view all sides of the story before we judged which is a balanced approach but we are human and bound to respond to what we hear and see. Miss Turney referred to the response as the ‘bad side of twitter’ but in fact, the twitterati are simply an audience to the high drama being played out in true Operatic style publicly in the media and social media forums. It seems a little unfair to chastise people for being people – there was a ‘gossip’ in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and let’s face it with PR and Press Officers involved we will probably never get to know the true storyso we grab what we can and respond to it – if it was of no interest to us, no matter how many times it was tweeted or mentioned we’d ignore it and move on. I agree with Miss Turney that twitterers can sometimes be too casual in their passing on of tidbits of info, without checking their sources/facts but then we’re people not trained journalists – our response is a human one. You can read her response here… [...]

  2. Lee Hall and Opera North: how the story went viral | The Guardian Reader Says:

    [...] have decided to give ON the benefit of the doubt – such as Eleanor Turney at A Younger Theatre, who said: “I fail to see how the school’s apparently small-minded decision is Opera [...]

  3. » Blog Archive » Going with the flow Says:

    [...] This week I’d drafted a few thoughts on the Opera North incident (and, for anyone who missed it, there is an excellent round up by Andrew Dickson at the Guardian) but then Eleanor Turney summed up things so succinctly, and so many of the thoughts that crossed my mind too, that there seemed little point in repetition. Her blog post can be found riiiight…here. [...]

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