Opera North project cancelled over gay references

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Company forced to deny accusations of homophobia

A community opera with a libretto by Billy Elliot writer, Lee Hall, (left) has been cancelled after a participating school pulled out over a reference to a character’s sexuality.

Harvey Brough's opera, Beached, was due to open this month with a cast including 300 pupils from Bay Primary School in Bridlington.

The lines that allegedly caused the disagreement are: ‘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.’

Lee Hall claimed that the school had requested some lines be toned down and that he had subsequently made changes to his script. But when he was asked to remove this particular line, he had refused.

Writing in the Guardian, Lee Hall said: ‘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… Effectively, I feel I am not being allowed to represent a gay person.’

Speaking to the BBC, East Riding of Yorkshire Council's head of improvement and learning, Mike Furbank, said: ‘It was made very clear to the writer there were certain elements the school found offensive... including references to drug taking, sexual conduct and the use of homophobic name-calling. Although the language was toned down, it was still deemed as unacceptable for four to 11 year-olds to be exposed to.’

In a statement on its website Opera North’s general director, Richard Mantle, sought to distance the company from accusations of homophobia.

He wrote: ‘We regret that some people associated with the project have decided to view the decision not to proceed with performances as being based on a homophobic fear on the part of Opera North. This is utterly at odds with the reality of the company’s ethos about inclusivity.’

The community project now looks unlikely to go ahead and Opera North is set to lose its £15,000 commissioning fee.

Elizabeth Davis