'Billy Elliot' Writer Fights for Gay Opera Character

Playwright Lee Hall says homophobia led to the cancellation of his latest opera

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Players: British Playwright Lee Hall; Richard Mantle, director of the British opera company, Opera North.

Opening Serve: A community performance of Hall's opera "Beached," facilitated by Opera North, has been cancelled after the major school involved withdrew its 300 child participants. The opera company writes that, though Hall was willing to change parts of the script that the school considered inappropriate for its chid participants--such as references to drugs and sex--he was apparently unwilling to make enough changes to keep the school involved. The line which Hall refuses to change is one in which the main character in the show reveals he is gay. On its blog, Opera North insists that it "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."
Return Volley: A frustrated Hall took to The Guardian to lay out his side of the debate, explaining that during one of the play's scenes, the main character, is teased for being gay. "At the school's request, I agreed to tone down the violence of the language in this scene, but not the character's straightforward defense of his sexuality." He refused to get rid of the lines "I'm queer" and "I prefer a lad to a lass," arguing that they are neither offensive nor inappropriate for children. He predicts the play's cancellation will cause a scandal "not just because of the public money wasted, but because ignorance and timidity will have won the day. No one involved will countenance the idea that there could be homophobia at play," he explains. "Effectively, I feel I am not being allowed to represent a gay person. The idea that being gay is something inappropriate for a child to witness is unsupportable--as if gay people weren't fathers or mothers or sisters or brothers."
What They Say the Fight's About: Opera North claims it has no problem whatsoever with the sexuality of the character and are simply adhering to the school's demands which, in the end, has control over whether its children participate in the opera. Hall thinks his words are in no way inappropriate and the fact that the school finds it wrong for students to be on stage with an adult who professes to "prefer a lad to a lass" is homophobic.
What the Fight's Really About: Opera North is in a sticky position because, though it insists it has no problem with the main character of the play's homosexuality, it has no control over the school's decision. Still, as one blogger following the debate argues, the opera company could have made more of an effort to denounce the school's move and declare its commitment to producing Hall's opera in the face of a 300 cast member loss. Theater blogger Eleanor Turney agrees but points out, "Opera North obviously has a lot invested in its relationship with the local community, and to dismiss or criticize 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."
Who's Winning Now: No one. The play's cancellation is a loss for Hall, Opera North and the children hoping to act in it. Opera North doesn't look great not having expressed undivided support for Hall and his work, but the school certainly looks worse. Hall, on the other hand, definitely comes off as the innocent victim here but that's no consolation for having his play stalled.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.