School's out: Why children and opera don't always mix

Is the dropping of Opera North's community project, Beached, down to homophobia or just incompetence? Jessica Duchen reports

What a mess. It's a real state-of-the-nation incident: all about regulation, political correctness and what happens when they clash. Opera North commissions a 'community opera' for its residency in Bridlington, with music by Harvey Brough and a libretto by Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliot. The suggested models are the operas of Benjamin Britten. But now the resulting work, Beached, is all washed up.

Beached's cast includes 300 local schoolchildren, some as young as five. The story is about an unemployed single father trying to spend a quiet day at the seaside. According to Hall's furious article in Monday's Guardian, it resembles "Britten's Albert Herring meets Death in Venice, drawn by Donald McGill...a comedy about tolerance and inclusiveness". It has cost more than £100,000, rehearsals involving 400 performers have been taking place for six months and the premiere was scheduled for 15 July.

Two weeks ago the main primary school "raised objections" to parts of the libretto and requested changes. Negotiations took place, but an impasse was reached over some of the lines of one main character, a gay retired painter taunted by local yobs. "At the school's request," writes Hall, "I agreed to tone down the violence of the language in this scene, but not the character's straightforward defence of his sexuality. Word came back from Opera North that, unless I removed the lines 'I'm queer' and 'I prefer a lad to a lass', the whole project was in jeopardy... On Saturday, I was told by email that the school has withdrawn and that Opera North are no longer able to maintain the project."

A Twitter storm blew up, with many tweets accusing Opera North of homophobia. The company issued a response saying: "The opera deals with a broad range of issues but the way in which certain themes, including those around sexuality (hetero and homosexual), bullying and drug taking were tackled was at odds with the teaching policy of the local authority..." Opera North also "absolutely rejects any accusations that it is at all discriminatory and is dismayed that anyone would draw these conclusions."

The statement stopped short of defending the composer and librettist. It could have done so. Yet as far as I can tell, pulling the project is not remotely Opera North's fault: clearly it couldn't go ahead without the school as it would be impossible to replace so many kids at such short notice.

Most objectors have questioned how those issues could cause such antiquated objections in the UK today. But what about a little basic competence? Why on earth didn't the school and the Conservative local authority in Bridlington, which supported the school's decision, notice what was in the opera for so many months, only doing so mere weeks before its opening night? Someone, somewhere, knowing the opera's content and the ages of the kids involved, should have seen trouble looming a mile off.

Community or schools' opera is a great thing: a wonderful way for youngsters to experience the thrill of the footlights and the smell of the greasepaint. I've seen some wonderful ones, notably Tobias and the Angel by Jonathan Dove, while Glyndebourne Education's Knight Crew by Julian Philips was inspired in the way it drew in its cast of teenagers.

But certain other, much older yet equally fantastic ventures in this field have disappeared. One of the best of these has disappeared in all probability, for reasons that exemplify the batty tangle into which today's philosophies about political correctness and the arts have led us.

As a child, I doted on an album of a children's opera by Benjamin Britten called The Little Sweep, written in 1949. Set in the 19th century, it tells the emotive story of a chimney sweeper's boy, who the children in a grand house rescue from his sadistic employer. It's a mini-masterpiece, punctuated with ingenious songs for the audience to sing. It helped to turn me on to classical music in earnest.

Yet I have never once seen The Little Sweep staged. Its historic setting could seem dated now – but its humane emotions do not. Is there an unspoken ban on it? Reading Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Britten quickly reveals that the composer was fortunate to live in the mid 20th century: were he alive today, the tabloids might wreck his life. There's no doubt that he frequently had the hots for young teenage boys. And his 'affection' is written all over his operas – Death in Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Turn of the Screw – and, yes, The Little Sweep. Its text is squeaky-clean, involving nothing suggestive, but it's by Britten, it's for children...and it's never heard.

We could risk losing much great opera to retrospective political correctness. Puccini's Madama Butterfly, perhaps, for patronising the Japanese; Mozart's Die Zauberflöte for being misogynistic, racist, elitist and mean to anyone who has feathers. And let's not even start on Wagner.

To banish artistic works of past centuries using today's PC standards would be worse than stupid. It would be destructive illiberalism – propounded in the name of liberality and inclusion. Britten was not a simple, straightforward character. We'd have to throw his work out for his paedophiliac rumblings – yet would risk accusations of homophobia against a man who lived in a committed relationship with his beloved Peter Pears, something we celebrate. Britten's sexual complexity has left us terminally muddled: in response we deify him, while quietly brushing The Little Sweep under the carpet. Then we commission new operas modelled after his and wonder why there's trouble.

And what of new works? Have we finally reached the point where we censor them for social attitudes before they can even be heard? If so, it's time to stop meddling, or else new opera will end up just a Frankenstein's monster – an artificial construct without a soul. And nobody would want to listen to that.

One afterthought remains in this sorry tale of bungled box-ticking. Did anyone ever ask whether Beached really is suitable for small kids? There's no obvious reason that children as young as five would take to its story. Many five-year-old boys I know (I have eight nephews) are only interested in football, toy cars and fart noises – a bit like some grown men. As for the girls, the 'commercial tyranny of pink' is a topic for another time. Small children don't give a fig for tales "about tolerance and inclusiveness". Before we can really protect children's innocence, maybe we need to recapture some of that innocence ourselves.

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