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.

14 Comments

  1. Milena Popova says:

    While I agree that the root cause of it is the school, Opera North’s statement is still highly problematic. Here’s my take on it: http://milenapopova.eu/2011/07/an-exhibit-in-the-national-curriculum.html

  2. Cai says:

    Very nice post! :)

    It makes me sick that this is even an issue. I’m behind a school’s requests to tone-down references to violence, sex, drugs or “bad language” in theatre where small children are present (either as actors or as target audience members). However, it seems like the school is placing references to homosexuality in the same category, which makes absolutely no sense.

    It’s hard to think of a play aimed at young children which does not exhibit an explicitly heterosexual relationship between characters — be that a prince marrying a princess, or a mother and a father. No school in its right mind would complain at these scenarios. For the school here to be anything other than delighted with references to a character’s non-heterosexuality is blatantly homophobic, so far as I can see. Absurd. To remove all ties to the play, forbid children from participating, and publicly dig in its heels speaks volumes about the bigotry of the administrators and parents. I’ve little doubt that the children involved couldn’t care less. With morons like these, it seems unlikely that there’s anything Opera North could have done to salvage the situation.

    There is plenty homophobia in this situation. It’s only a shame that the echo chamber of Twitter resounded with the bleats of the uninformed today.

  3. Gordon Rae says:

    Opera North published their press release on their blog at 09:48 this morning. Their decision atracted much criticism on Twitter, and a blog post by Daniel Bye (visible at danielbye.com). But contrary to what you say, the discussion on Twitter has not been misinformed or a ‘knee jerk’. It has been proportionate and focused, and its impact was seen at 12:19 when Opera North published a second press release.

    The controversy on Twitter, just as you say yourself in your last paragraph, is whether Opera North did the right thing in respecting the school’s right to have the last word on how human sexuality should be presented in the school, and whether or not Opera North could have made a clear and unequivocal statement of its own position about tolerance and homophobia.

    Over the next few days and weeks, I hope somebody investigates how the question of a gay character in the opera only became an issue two years into the project. (Surely, it can’t have been overlooked or concealed?) But today the role played by people on Twitter has been to uncover the truth, discuss the issues, and ask the protagonists to account for themselves. I find that overwhelmingly constructive. Since you published your post at 3:15, and have obviously read the second Opera North press release, and the same tweets I have read I am surprised that you take such a negative view.

  4. Laura Tosney says:

    Great post Eleanor, thanks for writing it. I was going to blog myself on the topic, but you’ve summed up a vast chunk of what I would have said anyway – seems little point in my repeating! :)

    I think was is depressing, as you rightly say, is the mob baying before all the facts are known. To be honest, in my eyes, all the facts *still* aren’t known, and all feels rather “he said, she said”.

    What frustrated me also, was that the Twitter masses automatically jumped to the conclusion of the school “hiding homosexuality”. And while I think all kids should know on age-appropriate detail that some boys like boys and some girls like girls, we haven’t seen the whole portion of the script the school has issue with, just as we haven’t heard from the school exactly why they have a problem with it other than the vague assertion that it contradicts their curriculum. On the one hand, Opera North say “Although Lee Hall was invited to come to Bridlington to engage with the school and others directly, this was sadly not possible.” On the other, Lee Hall says, “So I personally organised workshops to be given by Stonewall’s educational team, who work with local authorities and primary schools. I offered to pay for this myself. It was all rejected by the education authority and the school.” 6 of one…

    If the school have a curriculum to stick to, funding for projects such as these that fit into that, is often subject to a multitude of rules and regulations. For all we know, they might have good reason to have turned down, or it may truly be dsicriminatory. As I’m sure we all feel, it seems a shame given that theatre is one of the best forums to help open up minds and educate people.

    As you point out, Opera North isn’t at fault for a decision seemingly made by another party, and one which they have apparently tried to mediate. I felt they responded as quickly and as openly as they could, and while some felt their first statement was obfuscating, I personally felt I understood the gist of what they were trying to say. I also felt that perhaps it may not be best for particulars to be splashed across the internet when tempers are running so high – it doesn’t often contribute to well-thought-out discussion or debate. One which I feel this occurence should quite rightly open up – what children are taught in schools on the subject and whether there is a gap between what parents want, what educators want, what the public at large needs, and what actually exists.

  5. Twitter Brews Up a Storm « Digitarts Blog says:

    [...] a good response to the Twitter Storm here By digitarts, on July 4, 2011 at 6:47 pm, under Uncategorized. No Comments Post a comment or [...]

  6. Stuart says:

    Here is the response I have made to Opera Norths latest statement which addresses many of the issues in your blog. My principle concern is the lack of courage from Opera North and the perceptions many will have as a result of this. This was addressed 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.

  7. Alan says:

    Elanor,

    I disagree with your post.

    Opera North should have stood with Lee Hall, and issued a statement saying it supports the decision to remove the reference to a gay character on the grounds that it is not suitable for primary children. Rather then simply cancel the project with no publicity! If Lee Hall had not spoken out we would not know about the situation.

    Opera North should not have released statements saying “it appreciates the viewpoint” of the school, that the school is “morally within its rights” to make such a decision.

    Opera North’s latest statement attacks Lee Hall for going public about the lack of support he received from Opera North!

    Of course the school and the local authority are at fault – do you know anyone who is offended by Opera North’s actions who would not agree with such a statement???? It does seem a rather futile observation.

    However, you think this let’s Opera North off the hook, and that when it comes to self-interest – better to remain silent when confronted with homophobia rather than speak out! A shameful point of view.

    I wonder if the point of view that they should be no black characters in the play, would allow you to write of Opera North’s stance that, “This was an arse-covering decision, not a racist one” as you so easily write “This was an arse-covering decision, not a homophobic one.”

    I may be mistaken, but I suspect not!

  8. Alan says:

    The first sentence in the second paragraph in my post above should have read “Opera North should have stood with Lee Hall, and issued a statement saying it supports the decision NOT to remove the reference to a gay character.

    Apologies!

  9. Jenny Daniel says:

    Feeling sorry for the poor people in ON education office today. But there has been a PR clanger.

  10. Eleanor Turney says:

    @Alan

    Thanks for your comments.

    “However, you think this let’s Opera North off the hook, and that when it comes to self-interest – better to remain silent when confronted with homophobia rather than speak out! A shameful point of view.
    I wonder if the point of view that they should be no black characters in the play, would allow you to write of Opera North’s stance that, “This was an arse-covering decision, not a racist one” as you so easily write “This was an arse-covering decision, not a homophobic one.”
    I may be mistaken, but I suspect not!”

    I think it’s slightly reductive to bring race into this debate – my point is that whatever you think about Opera North’s decisions or level of pubic support, the real issue is that the school seems to equate mentioning homosexuality with teaching children about sex.

    I absolutely don’t think it’s better to stay silent than to speak out when confronted by homophobia, but it seems to me that we have no idea how long this debate has been raging or how much ON has done already to reach a compromise with the school. The whole situation is a sad mess, but I just don’t like the blanket damning of ON. Yes, it handled the fiasco badly, but that doesn’t make it homophobic.

    However, I agree completely that ON was wrong and foolish to say in its statement that ‘“it appreciates the viewpoint” of the school’, as it seems that the school is both misguided and wrong, and, yes, possibly homophobic. What I fail to see, though, is what ON could have done to keep the opera going ahead once the school removed its pupils? A more strongly worded statement in support of Hall would have been better, but beyond that it seems that ON is in an impossible position.

  11. Laura Tosney says:

    I think this is another interesting viewpoint on the subject: http://bridlingtonbullhorn.wordpress.com/2011/07/04/lee-hall-opera-north-and-bay-primary-school/

    The quote I particularly agree with being, “Nobody has actually said (yet?) that “we don’t want to talk about homosexuality”. Rather, it seems to be “we don’t want to talk about it like this.”” which should be entirely within the remit of the school/LEA to say that, and which of course, isn’t ON’s fault and doesn’t instantly infer that they are homophobes. I wish the people that are screaming that Opera North are homophobic would quit it – it’s not their call to say what is and isn’t part of a school’s curriculum activity, especially when funding depends on it.

    And should they really have had to unequivocally pick sides in this argument? Should they really have to defend one side over the other? Surely not – because they are the mediators, the form through which this production can (or can’t) go ahead. The problem is between the school and the playwright, and the school, by all accounts, didn’t want to get rid of the gay character, they apparently issues with the way it was approached, which in my eyes has a crowbar separation.

  12. Alan says:

    Laura,

    I mentioned race, because I do think it is true that people who think Opera North are only at fault for bad PR, would not say this if the issue was about a gay character

    Your claim that Opera North had no choice to cancel looks premature – it seems they are now talks to go ahead with the production. We have to wait for definite confirmation.

    I again restate, no one thinks the school/Lea is not at fault – but people are also shocked that Opera North should refuse to stand by their artist on an issue of homophobia.

    One does not have to be a homophobe to act homophobiclly. Just insensitive, silent when confronted with homophobia – ie cowardly!

    Here is a great post by another blogger that shows what Opera North should have said if they had a back bone.

    http://notsowunderbar.blogspot.com/2011/07/what-opera-north-could-have-said.html

    This is what one blogger thinks Opera North should have said

    ‘Opera North is very disappointed in the decision made by the school to withdraw its pupils from our production, which has come so late as to make the scheduled run impossible. While respecting the concerns of parents and teachers, the company cannot agree with their decision.

    We remain committed to producing this opera, and will not allow a dated narrative of shame around homosexuality to prevent us from presenting works of art which feature gay characters. It is not harmful to children for them to be informed that homosexuality exists; it is a simple fact of life. We would welcome the chance to collaborate with any community and school in our catchment area who would like to work with us on mounting a production of ‘Beached’ as it is currently scripted, and greatly regret that it cannot be in Bridlington.’

  13. Alan says:

    Laura you quoted a site saying

    The quote I particularly agree with being, “Nobody has actually said (yet?) that “we don’t want to talk about homosexuality”. Rather, it seems to be “we don’t want to talk about it like this.”” which should be entirely within the remit of the school/LEA to say that, and which of course, isn’t ON’s fault and doesn’t instantly infer that they are homophobes.

    Lee Hall has specifically said he was asked to cut the gay character.according to Lee the school asked that the man be treatened by the yourh because of his age, rather then gay – this would have meant removing the only reference to the fact the character is a gay man.

    I do not believe Lee Hall is lying, do you? Why do people try and escape the issue by muddying the waters about the language. Lee had said he would be happy to use the word ‘gay’ instead of ‘queer’ if that is what was needed to get pass the impasse. Stop making it sound complex, is is very simple, Lee was asked to cut the reference to the man being gay as the school thought it unacceptable for primary children, and instead asked the scene to be abour ageism!

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