The furore that has erupted over the cancelling of a large scale community opera created by writer Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot fame apparently) by Opera North has led to most of the scrutiny being placed upon Opera North itself. This is despite the main villains of the piece being a primary school and an entire Local Education Authority.
So why is Opera North taking all the flack?
At issue, for the school and the LEA at least, is the use of two key phrases in the libretto of the opera, those phrases being "I'm queer" and "I prefer a lad to a lass". The school and the bureaucrats, fearing the immediate corruption of the 4-10 year old participants, removed 300 of them from taking part when Mr Hall refused to alter the writing.
Since making the decision to cancel the performance of the work, Opera North has managed to dig a very deep hole for itself for one simple reason. The initial position they adopted through press releases and blog posts was fundamentally weak and when the press and the Twitterverse sense weakness they go in for the kill.
Whenever you are faced with a situation like this, that involves uncomfortable enquiries from the press and the public, you have to ask yourself, as an organisation, three simple questions;
1. Do we have a position on this? 2. Should we have a position on this? 3. What is our position on this?
From a communications point of view this is the perfect circle of protection with regards to whether or not you should actually open your mouth to begin with. If you get through the first two questions and end up at the third your job from that point on is simple, just state your position.
Opera North clearly has a position on this because they were running the project to begin with. This is where the wheels fell of their wagon though because they did something you should never do when adopting a position. They equivocated their little heads off their collective shoulders. They waffled and waffled and made no sense at all and now they're being punished for it.
You can read their responses at the links below.
For anybody with an ounce of common sense or skill the "out" here was easy. The school and the LEA were responsible for pulling the children from the show for reasons that are completely dubious and suspiciously homophobic.
The last thing a large-scale opera company wants to do is give the appearance or even suggestion that they are some how agreeing with or complying with a decision based on the perception of homophobia.
A large number of gay people work in the arts and a large number of gay people are actively involved with and attend all forms of art and culture. It's a big demographic and not really one to be trifled with.
All Opera North needed to do was tell both the school and the LEA that the writing would, under no-circumstances, be changed because they deemed it to be age appropriate and entirely relevant to aims and objectives of the project and they stand by their writer without equivocation.
If the kids are pulled from the show, Opera North can state its position to the press and lay the blame firmly at the door of the out of touch, reactionary bureaucrats (where it actually belongs).
Ultimately the losers are the kids but the large scale arts organisation is in the clear because they took a stand for free expression, inclusiveness and common sense and they're working hard to present some form of the production without the kids. If they can't actually make that happen then once again at least Opera North was trying.
Yes they are throwing their two "partners" under a bus but better them than Opera North because the school and the LEA are the ones making a mess of this.
Opera North's position would have been strong.
Here in TheLab™ the responses from Opera North to this situation don't really come as much of a surprise. You would be amazed at how often an arts organisation can turn a molehill into a mountain through a simple lack of understanding of how to handle basic communications.
The larger the organisation the tighter they are all wound-up, petrified of making a mis-statement, or what could be perceived as a mis-statement that is subjected to the public gaze.
More often than not arts organisations are so afraid of offending anyone or causing the slightest bit of turbulence that, rather than do what needs to be done, they wobble and wobble until, unlike The Weebles, they eventually fall down, (obscure reference alert! Ed!)
At the time of writing Opera North has issued a third statement, this time credited to the General Director, Richard Mantle.
It's all too late though. The perception is out there that Opera North backed a decision made by people who were clearly hysterical over a non-issue.
The fix was easy, cleaning up the mess will be a lot harder.