Opera North’s got itself in a pickle it didn’t need to be in

Opera North commissioned a piece of “community opera” with librettist Lee Hall, the writer of Billy Elliot. It was to be performed in a primary school. The education authority concerned decided that some of the libretto was “unacceptable”. This was because it contained nine words that apparently small children are so likely to be damaged by that they need to be “safeguarded” from them. The education authority alighted upon the simple safeguarding expedient of preventing them from hearing these pernicious words in the first place. The writer was asked to remove them. He refused. The whole enterprise was called off. Lee Hall has accused Opera North of colluding in homophobic shenanigans. They in turn deny it, blaming the school authorities. So, a right royal mess. For a good summary of the events so far, you might read this from the Guardian.

Many others have already waxed eloquent on the central issues and many of their words are cited in the Guardian article I’ve linked to above. So, beyond the observation that I doubt many 4 yr-olds will be much, or permanently, damaged by hearing the word “queer”, nor by a male character’s stated preference for “lads not lasses”, I’m not going to pursue those matters here. I’m more interested in how Opera North have made such a hash of their handling of the furore, and why they never needed to be in the mess they’re in.

In my opinion it all comes down to the victory of “reputation management” and “media management” over clarity of principle. Opera North’s mistake was most vividly demonstrated by the three separate, and different, statements that it issued on its official blog. It starts with an attempt to please everyone: “Opera North respects Lee’s rights as an author and Beached is a wonderful piece about bringing all different sections of the community together. On the other hand, we can appreciate the viewpoint of the school about when they make the decision to teach PSHE to their pupils.” Lee Hall was most evidently not pleased. So Opera North had another go, pushing the blame squarely towards the school: “As an opera company we have to take the difficult position of accepting that the school is entitled to make this decision and we have to accept that.” That didn’t quite do the trick. So a third, and personal, effort by the General Director, Richard Mantle: “Opera North 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. Lee Hall has been willing to introduce changes and make adjustments to the libretto, but in relation to the scene which has caused the most difficulty for the school, Lee refused to make any further change, as is his right as a librettist.” By now Lee Hall is being supported, and the school’s position, by implication, rejected. But of course, it’s all far too late.

But why was the final full-blooded defence of the work preceded first by a lily-livered “neutrality”, and then by a sort of transitional squirming? Because the blog posts were not concerned with the principles, but with massaging the media, and managing Opera North’s reputation. There are two lessons here, and I hope Opera North, and just about every other public body in a tight spot, learn both of them. First, regardless of how you might fear the consequences, decide what you think is right, express it clearly and robustly, and stick to your guns. And second, worrying about your reputation first, and your principles second, will eventually damage your reputation infinitely more, and for longer. Spinning is wrong, and it doesn’t work.

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