from Tuesday, July5th of the year2011.
So! Has everybody been following this huge mess happening at Opera North? I’m going to dip my toe into this very gingerly because it’s kind of all over the place. Let’s first start by summarizing what we think is going on.
Librettist Lee Hall & composer Harvey Brough collaborated on an opera called Beached, which was an Opera North production, and somehow incorporated 400 denizens of Bridlington, which is kind of northeast of Leeds, by the sea, in Yorkshire, I guess? This has been underway for about a year. Apparently last weekend, the main primary school involved threatened to pull out of the production:
Hall’s account of the affair is published in an article for the Guardian. Hall writes: “The request seemed to come from a completely different era. I thought there must be some mistake and that Opera North would support me by finding a way round this completely outdated hysteria.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.” There are still hopes that a resolution may be found. A spokeswoman for Opera North said it had been trying to act as a mediator between the school and Hall and had not taken a side. “The school has said that the work is inappropriate,” she said.
But by last week, we had reached an impasse. 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.)
What I find bizarre is the insistence that no one – not the school, not Opera North, not the local education authority – is being homophobic. Instead, we have the strange position that, because the children are of primary-school age, these lines are too difficult and confusing for them. It feels to me that, because I was unwilling to remove these lines, the opera’s chance of taking place has vanished.
So it seems to me as if the opera company is in a very very uncomfortable position here, where they have to choose between supporting their artists and negotiating with the community, which is, after all, what an opera house should do. There are some missing steps here, though, that we’re not seeing. For instance, how did it get so bad between Hall and Opera North that he just went right ahead and wrote this piece in the Guardian? Was that done with the blessing of their PR department, thinking, perhaps, that the attention would help sway people to do the right thing? Probably not, as their own statement ends pretty nastily. Check out the comments thread below the statement if you want to wade deeper into this. Also check out this awkward morning show clip.
The other question I have is: why is this happening now and not a year ago? What was the process by which the libretto was vetted? The morning show people asked and got a really convoluted answer; are these people crunk like how Danny Devito was that time? Who got sent a copy of the libretto? I’m particularly sensitive to this, because Craig Lucas and I have just gone through an idyllic collaborative process with the ENO and the Met putting together Two Boys. Anybody who wanted to read the libretto could read it, and all the adults in the production were charged by our director, Bart Sher, to take care of the kids (we had a dozen actors and two singers), making sure nobody was uncomfortable. Bart spoke with the parents of the kids — particularly the singing ones — well in advance of the production period. And in the interests of full disclosure here, allow me to excerpt for you some moments from the opera:
Congressman. did any girl give u a haandjob this weekend?
Page. i’m single right now
Congressman. did u spank yourself this weekend?
Congressman. in the shower where do you throw the towel?
Page. in the laundry
Congressman. just kinda slow
Page. it works
(If you don’t know the reference, I’m not going to tell you, but it’s a matter of public record).
Later, a chorus contains the (loudly sung) text:
I love you…part me in 2…love u like a sister… kill urself … What’s eating you? … i love u u u … i want to kill him … u still there? … i know who u r … Castrate me and cook it while we have a Last supper … Money hungry … sweet dreams, sweet dreams, sweet dreams.
So, there’s that. And then there is a very complicated sex act, which is made more complicated because neither character is in any way explicitly homosexual, but there is a homosexual sex act referenced. This sort of gets at the issue that Hall brings up in the awkward morning show about differentiating between sex and sexuality. [This is neither here nor there but I do wish that people could get it into their heads that straight people engage in homosexual sex acts all the time. It may not be their, like, biologically determined preference, but the bars close early here and what all else is there to do?]
The ENO and the Met were amazingly supportive through this entire process. At no point did anybody say that we had to de-gay anything. If there were uncomfortable murmurs, they never reached me, and the general atmosphere on the stage and off the stage was one of completely uncompromised support for the work. This isn’t to say that we didn’t get word-change suggestions all the time, but usually this was to do with the nuances of British English or with the procedural gestures of police work. I would say that 95% of these notes came to us during the workshop process, which began over 18 months ago. Most of them both Craig and I happily took on board. The last week of production we got a few little bits and bobs — usually from the singers, who do indeed know best about this kind of thing — regarding what would be clearer to hear over the orchestra. Craig removed, quite happily, a few tossed-aside obscenities because the word “shithead” is hard to sing.
We got notes from people at every level of production — Peter Gelb and John Berry had small and welcome handfuls, as did the rehearsal pianist, the stage managers, even a cellist! It’s good: it takes a village. There was a healthy conversation about whether or not we should put a warning on the website & poster saying that it might not be suitable for kids, although I think that the sexual violence in Two Boys is approximately one sixth of that in Don Giovanni. [Another aside here: consent, in its modern interpretation, is really easily brushed under the rug in these conversations.] All of this was handled calmly and without hysteria. Both houses were enormously helpful in helping me navigate the relationship of this piece to the “True Story” upon which it is very loosely based. The press have a really really obstinately and stubbornly hard time understanding “loosely based;” I did one interview with this writer who must have thought that Craig and I sat with a whiteboard with the word “TRUE” on one side and “OUR OPERA” on the other and that at the day’s end, there would be a percentage of things that were directly correlated and that we could, at the time of the interview, provide her with just such a percentage, and also, that any of this is relevant to anything. Moral of the story is that the ENO helped me retain my ladylike composure and I did not step to this ridiculous woman like Hannibal Lecter. (Yet another aside: the laws about privacy and all that are so confusing to me. If the “troostoryuponwhichtwoboysislooselybased” had happened up in American, those boys would both have reality shows and their moms would be on dancing with the stars or something.)
Okay back to Beached: Apparently one of the offending couplets reads: “Of course I’m queer/That’s why I left here/So if you infer/That I prefer/A lad to a lass/ And I’m working class/ I’d have to concur.” Whoa. I want to know how Brough set that; can somebody send me a score? That sounds really hard to set. If Craig had sent me that, I’d have sent it back just on the grounds that I have absolutely no idea how to unpack the information-delivery-system of that series of statements, and also “concur” is almost impossible to set without the singer doing a very Chinese erhua moment at the end of the [r].
Mark Shenton writes about this Beached/Boys comparison very well here. A guide to arts organizations weathering twitter storms is here, which is great. Oh also, apropos of nothing, I got this via a friend (who is England’s Dishiest Gynaecologist, by the way, ladies, if you want a handsome homosexical ladyparts doctor):
What I would love love love to see in this is actually the entire email thread between everybody. I’d love to see the first concerned parent’s email; I’d love to see how all of that worked — and not out of some kind of schadenfreude but because I’m honestly interested to see how this interesting project got to this awful contentious online battlespace. There are steps missing from all of the available accounts, which is what makes this whole thing kind of…operatic. In fact, somebody forward me all the emails and I’ll set them. We can do it in the church in Orford. Those kids know from community opera.
All kidding aside, my heart goes out to everybody involved, and especially to the 300 (!) kids who, for better or for worse, are going to miss out on being in an opera and in ten years are going to be wildly embarrassed about how all these grown-ass people have behaved online and in print. This is, I suppose, the big question: all of these adults are purporting to be acting in the interests of protecting children. What lesson are these kids going to learn by having their project taken away? What are they going to think about their adult role models when they’re older?
I wonder, also, what the correct move is now that there seem to be three factions: the school, Opera North, and Team Lee Hall. I’d love to hear from the composer, obvs, and maybe somebody should slap together a quick mp3 or video of the most ravishing section of the score? Amanda, what would you do? Is it gay parents up there who can make an estink?
(Also in all of this have we forgotten about Meet the Feebles?)