“If all opera addressed real contemporary experiences in exciting, dramatic and funny ways, it would sell out faster than a Lizzo concert”
BY FELICITAS SOPHIE VAN LAAK
On 8 November 2019, the Belfast Ensemble opens Belfast’s Outburst Queer Arts Festival with Abomination: A DUP Opera, composed by Conor Mitchell. The show fuses opera performance with drag, cabaret and political satire while featuring contemporary attitudes of Democratic Unionist Party members towards LGBTQI people.
Here, DIVA spoke to artistic director Ruth McCarthy about the opera’s subversive power and queer rights in contemporary Northern Ireland.
DIVA: Why did you choose to focus on DUP members?
RUTH MCCARTHY: While there has been negative commentary and inaction from other politicians here over the years, members of the DUP have been consistently evangelical and vocal in their opposition to gay and lesbian rights since the 1970s. Reading the libretto for the opera – which is made up entirely of verbatim quotes from the DUP on LGBTQI people – is actually harrowing. Their narrative has caused so much damage and pain. Given that they are the party with the most power in Northern Ireland and seeing as their alliance with Theresa May saved the last UK election for the Conservatives, it’s vital to look at the history of their impact on queer lives and LGBTQI rights. The hypocrisy of DUP members moralising in the face of well reported sexual and financial scandals makes it even riper for satire. It really is a Shakespearean level tangled web.
In popular culture, opera performances are widely associated with prestige and privilege. How do you reclaim the opera’s politically subversive power in Abomination?
It’s only in recent years that opera has become so exclusive – mostly because it’s expensive to produce and that’s passed on to ticket price. Historically, it was a populist form. There’s something wonderfully subversive in taking a genre that has such perceived high cultural status and queering it up. The power in having these experiences, these issues on the main stage of our main theatre sung by world class performers, well, it makes you sit up and clutch your pearls, doesn’t it? If all opera was like that, if it actually addressed real contemporary experiences in exciting, dramatic and funny ways, it would sell out faster than a Lizzo concert.
Drag Performances oftentimes portray women and femininity as a comedic joke, oftentimes reinforcing rather than deconstructing gender roles. How does Abomination deal with that?
I don’t think that drag has traditionally been about deconstructing gender roles so much as mimicking and subverting them. The tired old misogynistic pub drag of tired tampon jokes and zero gender awareness is obviously dire. But, at their best, drag artists are our sacred clowns. They can get away with dishing truths on many things, brilliantly. Matthew Cavan (drag artist Cherrie Ontop) is an incredible singer and also a gay man living openly with HIV. At one stage in Abomination he sings a truly awful quote by a DUP member about people with the virus. It’s gut wrenching when you make things personal; about actual human beings. That’s the power of what drag, or any performance, can do at its best.
Language constructs reality. In what way is that insight relevant to the opera’s effect?
We’re so used to the white noise of verbal homophobia in Northern Ireland that it’s easy to forget the damage it has caused. The mental health of LGBTQI people here is up to three times worse than anywhere else in the UK or Ireland. That says it all. The opera takes those awful words and asks us to pay attention to them. It’s a meditation on the power of language but also on how easily the media here feeds that homophobia in a cynical way that creates outrage rather than dialogue. There’s something happening right now, globally, around how cleverly people are using language to manipulate others. I hope the opera makes people think about that in a wider sense.
Does the title of the opera appropriate Iris Robinson’s pejorative use of the word “abomination” as a positive term for queer self-description?
Not at all. I’m a big fan of appropriation where that can be powerful or playful but in this instance the word is being held up as a mirror to those using it rather than worn as a badge.
In what way is humour used to deal with homophobia in Northern Ireland as well as globally?
Humour shines a light on the truth like nothing else. Queer people have always used humour to get through the most awful of things, it’s kept us sane and is also a bonding device between us. And to be honest, listening to some of the things that the DUP have said over the years, or Boris Johnson or Donald Trump – if you didn’t laugh you’d cry.
If the current political climate makes you want to cry, you better grab your tickets before they are gone, lyrictheatre.co.uk
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