Opera by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall cancelled over gay reference

Some of the cast of Billy Elliot the Musical
Image caption In Lee's Billy Elliot the Musical, Billy's friend comes to terms with his homosexuality

An opera involving primary school pupils has been cancelled after the writer refused to remove references to a gay character's sexuality.

The opera, Beached, written by Billy Elliot creator Lee Hall, was due to open this month in East Yorkshire.

Bay Primary School in Bridlington has pulled 300 pupils from the project.

Mr Hall accused Opera North, which is behind the production, of "censorship", but the company said it "can appreciate the viewpoint of the school".

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Media captionWriter Lee Hall and Opera North director Richard Mantle discussed the controversy on BBC Breakfast

Beached is a libretto which tells the story of a single father trying and failing to have a quiet day at the beach, and aims to teach a message of tolerance and inclusiveness.

It was was due to be staged on 15 June at The Spa in Bridlington, and has now been replaced with another performance.

'Underhand and nasty'

Mike Furbank, East Riding of Yorkshire Council's head of improvement and learning, said: "It was made very clear to the writer there were certain elements the school found offensive... including references to drug taking, sexual conduct and the use of homophobic name-calling.

"Although the language was toned down, it was still deemed as unacceptable for four to 11 year olds to be exposed to."

One of the main scenes that the school was unhappy about only involves adults and includes the line: "Of course I'm queer/ That's why I left here / So if you infer / That I prefer / A lad to a lass / And I'm working class / I'd have to concur."

Harvey Brough, the opera's composer, said he felt the council had behaved in an "underhand and nasty way" by citing other elements of the script that had been removed from the final draft after negotiations.

He added that himself and Mr Hall had asked to meet with parents to discuss the issue further, but had been turned down.

"There is so much joy and love and tolerance in the play - the issues are sensitively dealt with," he said.

'Annoyed and upset'

Lee Hall said he felt "hugely disappointed" for the hundreds of people in Bridlington who had been involved in the project for more than a year, but more so over the reaction to the line in opera.

"I really thought this was from another era and that a school and an opera company can make this kind of mistake, I'm baffled by it.

"Obviously I'm annoyed but I'm more upset that this type of discrimination could be acceptable to people."

In a statement, Opera North said it "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 [Personal Social Health & Economic education] to their pupils."

The company said it had been working on a community engagement project for two years in Bridlington and would now stage a performance showcasing that work.

As a result of the cancellation, it is set to lose £15,000, the commissioning fee for the opera, as well as months of rehearsal time.

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