Yesterday a link to an article in The Guardian by playwright and librettist Lee Hall entitled “I will fight this…” appeared on twitter: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2011/jul/03/lee-hall-opera-north in which Lee Hall offered a ‘call to artistic arms’ on the apparent failure of Opera North to support him in negotiating on the inclusion of a gay character in a musical piece he was writing for Opera North as part of a community project, which had resulted in a stand off between the lead partners a local primary school and their local authority, the writer and Opera North resulting in the ultimate withdrawal, two weeks before the performance of 300 primary aged children and effectively the end of this part of the project.
It has been a hot topic on twitter with responses from outrage to shock to sadness that there should be such a negative story about the art at such a difficult economic time. @rachelcoldicutt commented via her blog the ‘fabric of things’, offering advice to Opera North on how to weather the twitter storm http://fabricofthings.wordpress.com/2011/07/04/weathering-twitter-storms/
Daniel Bye published his view in an open letter on his blog http://www.danielbye.co.uk/blog.html (as did numerous others not mentioned here) and Opera North, perhaps heedind Rachel Coldicutts issued their response and then a further updated one http://operanorth.wordpress.com/2011/07/04/an-update-on-bridlington/
Via her twitter account @eleanorturney appealed for reason and an opportunity to view all sides of the story before we judged which is a balanced approach but we are human and bound to respond to what we hear and see. Miss Turney referred to the response as the ‘bad side of twitter’ but in fact, the twitterati are simply an audience to the high drama being played out in true Operatic style publicly in the media and social media forums. It seems a little unfair to chastise people for being people – there was a ‘gossip’ in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and let’s face it with PR and Press Officers involved we will probably never get to know the true storyso we grab what we can and respond to it – if it was of no interest to us, no matter how many times it was tweeted or mentioned we’d ignore it and move on. I agree with Miss Turney that twitterers can sometimes be too casual in their passing on of tidbits of info, without checking their sources/facts but then we’re people not trained journalists – our response is a human one. You can read her response here http://www.ayoungertheatre.com/opera-north-isnt-homophobic-an-operas-fiasco-l…
Anyway this all starts to sound like an historic accounting – would it make a great Opera – hey maybe! but my take is this – way back when in 2002 I wrote a days training session called ‘Working in Partnership’ as one of the first tranche of ‘artsplan’ training packages aimed at those working and using the arts in their work with young people because youth arts and education departments in arts organisations were still a relatively new concept and a legacy of the Theatre-In-Education work that began in the seventies and ended (pretty much) in the nineties but delivery and practise was isolated with few if any existing cohesive guidelines to ensure good practice. I was a community arts veteran having started on my first ‘large scale’ community arts project as a teenager and trust me no amount of good practice can replace the need for strong communication skills and a strong, committed team when working to the tune of many pipers – ‘perception’ is everything and community projects often twist and turn as they move along, shaping and re-shaping as participants fade away, new ones are found, ideas ditched due to impractabilities and new ones incorporated. A clear vision and understanding is needed right from the get go. Someone may have written something more in-depth since, I sincerely hope so, working in partnership in the arts should be approached with passion, committment, sensitivity…… oh you get the picture.
For the writer, Lee Hall it was about artistic freedom and to some extent a need to represent a realistic view, the world in which we live where issues regarding ‘sexuality’ is present on our televisions, in magazines, our market squares, in our homes, on our streets. For the primary school and the local authority it was about protecting their young people to whom they have a duty of care and not exposing them to potential trauma, confusion, misunderstanding and in a format that they considered was not manageable in a structured enough way or at an appropriate time. For Opera North, I’m guessing it was about reaching a plateau where everyone could agree on a way forward, so that their considerable time and investment was not wasted, so that the young people and members of the community involved could still gain a positive experience from the journey thus far. After all, schools can produce their own Opera’s and sometimes do but a community project with professional input and the involvement of people outside your own ‘community’ can offer a sense of wellbeing and achievement far above anything created in the familiar surroundings of the school hall.
This impasse should never have happened, but it did, somewhere along the line someone was not on the ball – it happens, we are imperfect. My hope is that all parties can at some point in the not too distant future contribute to a document or sharing of some kind so we can avoid such a disasterous occurence again and learn from their mistakes. My sadness is that, at the eleventh hour those school children were pulled out and will already have a sense (and later a a memory) of something that didn’t turn out to be what it should have been, or was promised to be – a celebration is not the same as the experience of performing in an Opera/musical. My fear is that Local Authorities will entrench becuase of this ‘public’ experience and create a limiting, generic, prohibitive policy out of it for future such projects and we will all suffer.