Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Don't you guys have anything better to do?"

This is the question any activist of any stripe will hear at least once in their life. Or, more likely, once an hour.

I mean, their interlocutor will go on to say, there are bigger problems/natural disasters/starving children in $DEVELOPING_COUNTRY/greater social injustices in this country than problematic presentations of women and minorities in the arts. Why focus on that when there’s so much else you could be doing?

You’ve got me with the starving kids in the developing country, imaginary interlocutor. Starving kids can’t eat opera. We can’t sing floods away, either. We’d like to, but we can’t. But I’d like to talk to you a bit about the greater social injustices, because that is something we can change. Yes, even through opera.

There is an age-old saying about history being written by the winners. Who writes the history after the battle is won - when the soldiers have put down their weapons and picked up their tools and started building everything back up again? Traditionally, a ruler would have a group of people in charge of arts and culture, and those people would go and find people they could trust to make the ruler (and themselves) look good, and get them to write things. They picked painters who would tactfully leave out their less attractive features. You get the idea.

And the people who don’t make them look good? The poor people who reflect badly on their ability to provide for their subjects? The ones who are a funny colour and look a bit suspicious? The ones who can’t even walk by themselves? They get left out too; or they get left in with horrible hairy warts and bad teeth, or a fetish for goats. Which is a shame.

Visibility is a big thing for us and a major reason why we exist. Jessie’s going to tell you more about that in the next blog post.

I had a debate with my partner recently about the inclusion of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people in a popular TV series. More specifically, my point was that there were none to be seen. The Barbarian race was portrayed as kinda Mediterranean, I guess, but that was the closest you got. No BME main characters, maybe two or three BME extras. That’s it.

But, argued my partner, it’s set in an alternate-universe-medieval-England type of place! There were no black people in medieval England!

It’s easy to think that, for sure. I mean, the only real evidence we get for BME people being around at that time are people like Othello or Shylock in literature, and Monostatos in opera a hundred or so years later. And Othello was a jealous type who couldn’t master his innate black dude violent streak (who says racial stereotypes evolve?), and Monostatos was a creepy servile type who’d do anything if it meant he could stick it in Pamina, so couldn’t master his innate black dude rapeyness. And Shylock was a dodgy loan shark who would accept a pound of flesh in lieu of cash if people couldn’t pay up, so couldn’t master his innate Jewish love of money and the pain of innocent Christians. Not a great start. But there were others, this much I can tell you with a degree of certainty.

Before I studied music, I studied literature. Before I studied literature, I studied Classics. In Classical times, there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the dominant culture du jour and places like Egypt. Egypt was a pretty big deal, actually. It had the world’s biggest library, loads of cash crops, spices, textiles and so on. It was the kind of country you definitely wanted on side. So those places ended up with a colony and an established trade route. So slaves were taken over to mainland Europe, and traders and skilled workers and people hoping for a better life and Roman citizenship would move over there. Some of them would earn some money and go back home. Some of them would have settled; slaves would have been freed and stayed put with the families they already had. By Julius Caesar’s time, there was an Egyptian quarter in Rome. Go figure if some of these guys didn’t eventually make their way over to Britain.

Of course, there’s little reference to them in art and literature that isn’t unflattering and racist. Artists and writers of the time often did their best to pretend that there were no strange and hideous BME or Jewish or disabled people in their perfect, white universe. Art and literary historians might well assume, on that basis, that there weren’t any there. Not so.

By extension, there were almost certainly strong, capable women, LGBTQUIA people, disabled people, people on low incomes and all sorts. They just weren’t talked about. It was more current, and more convenient, for the artists and writers and composers of the time to present them as victims or villains. That fits with their paradigm - all that is good is white, upper (or, later, middle) class, and almost invariably male. Anyone else was evil or needed help; they existed to make the rich white dudes look better.

So, by acknowledging that most opera written up until this point presents a skewed and biased worldview, we are...well, that’s it. We can’t go back and rewrite it, because we are not in the business of censorship. We just think it’s really important that the flaws are discussed openly, so that everyone is aware that things have moved on and must continue to do so. We’re not asking anyone to edit the bad parts out, and above all - and this is important - we are not asking anyone not to like it. The music is still beautiful, and the performers aren’t bad people or bad performers for taking part, provided they can question the message. We talk about its flaws, and we emerge a little wiser for how to think of the people involved, how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, and how even ugly sentiments can be made to sound or look beautiful.

As performers and directors, we can also be a little creative with our casting choices. You could put on a Magic Flute where everyone but Monostatos is played by black singers. You could re-cast a fey heroic tenor as an alto. You could employ female tenors and basses (they exist!) and experiment with the results. All kinds of interesting scenarios play out with trans, genderqueer or non-binary-gendered singers. You could experiment with different vocal and body types and see how these impact on a role. You could bother to cast disabled people, you know, at all. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff that can be done here - endless possibilities which Jessie and I are looking forward to playing with as our casting pool grows.

We’re also looking forward to commissioning new opera and music theatre that tells more people’s stories. Everyone has a story. We love stories, and we love music, and there are so many fascinating, heartbreaking, ecstatic and downright strange stories we could tell, and so much music we could tell it with. We’re very excited. Are you?

Hey. Remember our art contest? I bet you're great at art. You should totally enter!

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Legend Begins, As Does an Art Competition

Two queer feminist geeks walk into a cafe. It sounds almost like the start of a joke, doesn't it? Well, sit down, young 'uns, and I'll tell ye a tale.

Jessie and I first met in a pub surrounded by LARPers. We didn't talk much, at first, but we started to realise after a while that we had a few things in common. We both liked LARP, for a start. We also both liked opera, and sang it. We also both thought it was a damn shame that there were so many singing ladies, like ourselves, at the start of what could be a promising career if only there were enough roles to go around. And we were both feminists and activists, and our activism coloured our ideas of what we thought opera could be.

Eventually we decided that we might as well have a proper chat, away from the pub full of LARPers, about opera. And so, a few weeks later, two queer feminists walked into a cafe, and the rest is history.

Some time after that, the same two queer feminists walked into the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall, ordered a cup of tea each and an orange meringue, and started talking about Better Strangers in earnest - all the things we loved, and all the things we wanted to play with. And the result was as follows:

Now that our little baby project is all growed up (*sniff*), we're thinking we'd quite like to make this little scrap of paper into some art. Only neither of us is much good at drawing or graphics or anything snazzy like that, so this is where you come in!

Are you good at making things look nice? If so, consider this a prompt. If you can make this little baby scrap of scribbles into a big, sexy work of art, we will put your name on it and it will be used on pretty much all our publicity, ever. So your amazing art will be immortalised on the Internet, flyers, posters, funding applications and all sorts, and we will tell all our friends and funders how brilliant you are. :)

There's no deadline as such, but the sooner the better. Some time in the next 10 days to 2 weeks would be super ideal.

Have at it, you wonderful people! Submissions should go to betterstrangersopera[@]gmail[.]com.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Teaching teenagers to sing the heteropatriarchy

I met my girlfriend as a teenager on an opera summer school. I told her I was a lesbian, and we sat on a bench, in the moonlight, after the show, and held hands. That was the moment I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life with her.

That’s not quite true. Who knows anything about the future when they’re that age? And besides, we’d met before. And we did not actually get together until a year or so after we’d grown out of youth-opera. But still. We sat together, in the moonlight, with the echoes of the singing fading from our ears. That much is true.

By the time we were going to opera summer schools together, I was more-or-less out in my identification of something I had not yet learned to term queer. Lesbian was far too simple a term; for a start, it did not encompass the enormous crush I had on the man conducting the opera, his expressive eyebrows and sure, gentle hands.

(To this day, I have a bit of a thing for conductors. Queer for people who make music happen, you might say. And I have said, musicality being a far more fundamental part of what makes me tick in a relationship than genitalia. And I’m not the only one who’s said it, either; I can quote academics, like Suzanne G. Cusick in Queering the Pitch, who’ve said it too. Music is sexy, and everyone knows it. I certainly know it.)

In fact, the very first time I met my girlfriend was on an opera summer school, or at least a music and drama summer school. We were about ten. It was a production based on Longfellow’s Hiawatha. The only time in about ten years of youth music and drama that the performance featured anything other than a white hero.

We said ‘how’ a lot, and we conflated the unique cultural traditions of multiple groups of Native Americans into one homogeneous mess, which we assumed to be historical rather than contemporary. To the credit of the people running it, the production ended with the symbolically danced genocide of Hiawatha and all his people, signalled by the arrival of white soldiers (who, incidentally, were all played by girls). In fact, it was only when I was checking Wikipedia while writing this blog post that I realised that that’s not how the poem ends, that in Longfellow’s version Hiawatha tells his people to embrace Christianity...

I remember two things about my character in Hiawatha. Firstly, my solo, which I can still sing to this day. And secondly, the fact that I was one of only three people made to wear dresses. The casting was almost gender-blind; by which I mean most of the girls played men, because there were very few boys. Some of the girls played genderless personifications of abstract constructs. There were three actually female characters, Hiawatha’s love interest, her grandmother, and me. I was playing the village singer. Even for the people behind this mixed-gender musical theatre performance, thematically, singing was for girls, in dresses, to perform.

My girlfriend, who I met that week for the very first time, was cast as the personification of famine. My girlfriend has always been what I will call, not resorting to the invisibility of euphemism, fat. She cried, certain that she was being mocked.

She is unhappy. I am uncomfortable in the dress I would never have chosen to wear. Here we are, ten years old, and already learning body fascism, gender policing, cultural homogenisation. Already feeling the sting of it. All through the medium of youth opera.

I am politicised now. I question the things I learned, accidentally, then, along with the notes and the steps. But how many of us will unlearn those unconscious lessons?

Later, the part that always got to me was the fact that everything we performed, everything, ended with a heterosexual wedding. Except, that is, for Dido and Aeneas, which ended instead with death.

Is it worth noting that it was Dido and Aeneas was what we had been performing, my girlfriend and I, before the night when we sat and held hands under the stars? Heterosexual love is rejected. Death, says Dido, explicitly, is the only other option.

But not for us. Not for us.

We’d been cast as witches, of course. Along with the other fat girls, frizzy-haired girls, queer girls. And we had fun with it, too. Laughing at our triumph; mad and bad and powerful, and, for once, undestroyed by the narrative, unpunished for our freedom, revelling in the destruction of others.

I remember, so damn vividly, that the girl who played Dido was blond. I tried, back then, not to care. I tried to pretend it did not matter to me.

You can’t help but take the hidden messages away. In all my years of youth opera, I was never once cast as the heroine. I played a poisoner, one year, in Beggar’s Opera; and an alto one at that, despite my soprano voice. I played witches and unnamed women; I was characterless or I was evil. If I was very lucky, I was simply cast to play men.

Very few of the young people I sang with wanted to be opera stars. Only a handful remained musicians after childhood. I know of people I used to sing with who these days are policemen, social workers, politicians. Who take the lessons they learned from opera into the wider world. Lessons gained from performance: teamwork, confidence, success, ownership and responsibility. And the other lessons, too, whether they want them or not.

Later, I started teaching on these youth opera courses. I never got to choose which operas were going to be performed; it was a while before I realised that even had I had free rein to choose, I would not have been able to do any better. The heteropatriarchy would still have triumphed with a double wedding and a perfect cadence. One ending, one possible narrative. No matter how queer and colourful the cast, no matter how politically aware the director, no matter how much we wanted our music to be transformative, the tyranny of the happy ending locked us in.

We tried as hard as we could, myself and the young female director I worked with. I remember a production of Gondoliers, where we framed the happy ending pose around the two central men, played by girls, the larger holding the smaller in the air, staring into each other’s eyes. A queer image; a female-centred image, visually. Narratively, the erasure of the women who should have mattered, the women they were going to marry whatever our staging said. No way to win; the narrative impossibilities are scored and underlined, in the music.

And so we need new music. New stories. New possibilities of performing our new selves. Because what are the other options? We end up teaching a new generation to sing from the same heteropatriarchal hymn-sheet. Or we do not sing at all.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Of Course I'm Queer: Opera's latest homophobia scandal.

Those of our readers who have been following the arts headlines this week would have found it hard to miss the furore over Lee Hall’s homophobia row with Opera North. The story has been covered in detail at The Guardian and other press, so I’ll try not to get too bogged down in it here. As a summary, the story broke on Monday that a school in Bridlington had pulled its backing for a production written by Lee Hall and staged by Opera North in conjunction with its pupils. Their reason for doing so, according to the latest reports, was an objection to use of the term “queer” to describe one of its central characters.

I sent a few angry tweets in Opera North’s direction on Monday morning, when the story and my anger were both fresh. I can appreciate, now, that Opera North may have had their hands tied somewhat - the production couldn’t have gone ahead without the support of the school, without which they would lose both finance and performers; however, they couldn’t have been seen not to support their writer. What did get my hackles up, however, was their series of responses.

Their first response included the following:
we can appreciate the viewpoint of the school about when they make the decision to teach PSHE to their pupils. This project is part of their formal learning and pupils from the age of 4 are performing, watching and taking part in the entire piece.” (What is it, exactly, about homosexuality that makes it inappropriate for discussion by children? Some of them might even have gay parents.)

Richard Mantle’s closing remark was:
“Opera North feels that the decision by Lee Hall to suggest that the production was cancelled due to a homophobic stance on the part of the company is unacceptable. It is so at odds with the reality of our views on the issue, and so publicly misrepresents the situation in such a demeaning way.” (For why this is a crap response, please see Derailing For Dummies.)

Not So Wunderbar has imagined a more acceptable response.

Let’s take a look at the word the school objected to, by the way.
queer (n.)
1.strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different; singular: a queer notion of justice.
of a questionable nature or character; suspicious; shady: Something queer about the language of the prospectus kept investors away.
not feeling physically right or well; giddy, faint, or qualmish: to feel queer.

From here it has come to mean “homosexual” and, more recently, it has come to describe those who identify outside of normative sexuality or gender. Both Jessie and myself identify as queer. Not everyone in the community agrees on the use of the word, but many of us have decided to reclaim it for ourselves. When used as an insult, I suppose I can see why a school might find its use inappropriate (though I might suggest that school is some way behind the times). The context in which Hall used it, however, seems clear to me. Sewerby, the character in question, uses it to describe himself. He self-identifies as queer. Therefore, I would argue, what’s the problem?

As of today, the production is back on track. Hall has substituted “queer” with “gay”, changed a rhyme and, lo and behold, all is scheduled to go ahead. On their blog, Opera North have presented it as a minor artistic difference which has now been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

I remain sceptical, however. Among the whispers surrounding the scandal were that the school had asked for Sewerby to be cut entirely, for all reference to his sexuality to be removed (Hall says in his article: “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”), and that East Riding council had hastily retracted a claim that the character was a paedophile. How much of this is true and how much of it is media hearsay, we may never know. The story that broke on Monday - the story I read - was of a school that wanted to erase gay people from its environment and shut down discussion about them, in order to “protect” its children from “unsuitable” subject matter.

Do people really, honestly think that all gay people are paedophiles who hang around school gates and lure children into their lurid, pink, sequined lairs of deviance? Really? Do they also think that Jews eat babies, black people worship Satan and AIDS can be caught from a toilet seat? Because we’re pretty much at that level of ignorance here. Gay people aren’t perverts. They’re not after your children. They’re over there, having a quiet drink and getting on with their lives, just like you.

So now, with my promotional hat on, I say this for our project. Better Strangers is queer-positive. We want to give voice to queer people in opera. We think that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual, intersex, genderqueer and undecided people - or anyone else I haven’t mentioned who identifies outside of normative sexuality or gender - are people worthy of celebrating, of learning about, and of including, because to erase them would be to erase ourselves in the process. Our mission is to make your - our - voices heard.

Claudia prefers her babies shallow-fried, in case you were curious.