Just a few thoughts about your bewildering decision not to present Lee Hall's opera for fear of giving offence to homophobes.
Hold on!, you'll say. It's much more complicated than that. But is it? Because the way I see it, either you're frightened of giving offence, or you're actually homophobic. I'm going to be charitable and assume the former.
So what's the offence you could give, exactly? Acknowledging to under-11s that homosexuality exists? And what could possibly be wrong with that? Section 28 is long, long gone. We've surely moved on from the idea that one can 'teach' homosexuality. I can only conclude that our culture is stuck in a mindset that considers homosexuality something shameful, something that should be hidden for fear of frightening the horses. Don't mention your boyfriend on Radio Four, Simon - children may be listening. Nick and George, don't hold hands in public, Christians might be offended.
Well, I'm offended. I'm offended by the fact that many of my friends don't appear to have the same cultural freedoms as I do. As it happens, I don't particularly want to see anyone kissing in public - or on stage or screen. In life it's a private moment foisted on the public; on stage there's rarely much left at stake once it's happened. That said, I think there should be as much same-sex kissing on stage, on screen, and in public as possible, until middle England gets the fuck over itself. You, Opera North, could play your part in this gradual sea-change, by admitting to children that homosexuality exists. Or you can remain in the nineteen-sixties, sweep it under the carpet. You can refer to Uncle Paul's "special friend" instead of his husband, and write of him in his Times obituary as having been a "confirmed bachelor" when he was in a deeply loving relationship for the last forty years of his life.
Just yesterday I spent the afternoon with a friend who'd been at the recent Pride march. He pointed out that the very first of these, in the late sixties, had involved about twenty men, all of whom were beaten up and arrested by the police. Compare that with the joyousness we now see annually. Imagine how those twenty men, some of whom must still be alive, will feel, walking unmolested and joyful with a million members of their community. How far we've come! Then imagine how they must feel when they learn the very next day that we're still ashamed to talk about this to our children. How far we still have to go.
Opera North have presented some of the most wonderful productions of Britten I can imagine, and homosexuality is not irrelevant in his work. At this level, your decision is simply bizarre. You're clearly not homophobic, yet this decision makes it look that way. In your defence, you say you're not taking sides. Well why the hell not? If you can spend £15,000 on commissioning a writer, then commit to producing the work at great expense, you should be taking his side. If you can't stand by the work, you shouldn't have gone into rehearsals. And if you can't choose a side between homophobia and freedom of expression, quite frankly I'm astonished that you can hold your head up in the twenty-first century.
It's long been the job of artists to take people to places they didn't know they wanted to go. Of course there's still homophobia, and of course we sometimes have to fight it by gradual means. But by heading somewhere then panicking when the going gets tricky, you look cowardly and ridiculous. I beg you to reconsider your position. The work itself may by now be unsalvageable, but please, please make a strong statement of support for Lee Hall and a strong condemnation of homophobia. By not doing so, you tacitly endorse those who think it's ok to continue with their sly cultural homophobia on behalf of "others who may be offended". Everyone has a perfect right to be offended. What they don't have is the right for that to make the slightest difference to anything. As the posters say: some people are gay. Get over it.
Homosexuality has been found in over ninety species, homophobia in only one. This observation has been made so often I'd thought it a cliche. But obviously some people still need reminding.
PS - special thanks to @mrthomashescott for a couple of the observations in here, and to Ian Shuttleworth for rescuing me from an infelicity in the penultimate par, now quietly edited. Any other cock-ups are, of course, etc.
Opera North have released a new statement which goes some way to addressing these concerns. It very squarely places blame for the issue with the LEA and the school. And of course they're right to say that Opera North can't force the school to do anything. I'm prepared to accept this explanation, with a couple of reservations:
1) I'd be very curious to know whether the following option was explored: were individual parents given the right to withdraw their children if they had concerns? Surely this would be a much more delicate way of resolving the issue of potential sensitivity to the opera's themes. I had a similar issue with a youth theatre production I was directing five or six years ago. Rather than cancel the production for all the young people because of the concerns of one parent, one young person was withdrawn. This was a shame for them but at least that decision wasn't foisted on everyone. And then after a subsequent meeting between me and the parent, the young person was un-withdrawn.
2) I'd still like Opera North to make the statement I call for above: in support of the work they commissioned and against homophobia in any context, including schools. Especially schools. Instead their statement is mealy-mouthed: what it's against seems to be the perception of Opera North as homophobic. Yes, and some of their best friends are gay.
By the way, Opera North's work is bloody brilliant and I really hope this can be fixed.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will