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'Billy Elliot' writer's opera dropped over gay character who calls himself 'queer'

By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press

LONDON -- A community opera involving hundreds of children and written by the author of "Billy Elliot" has been canceled after the writer refused to remove lines spoken by a gay character in which he calls himself "queer."

Education officials said the school removed 300 pupils due to appear in the production because of offensive and derogatory language, but playwright Lee Hall on Monday accused the school of having dated and homophobic views.

The writer said he had refused to remove the lines "Of course I'm queer" and "I prefer a lad to a lass" from the opera "Beached," the story of an eventful day at the seaside set to music by composer Harvey Brough.

Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Hall said he had worked with the school to make other changes - including removing the use of "stupid" as an insult - but that the request about the gay character's lines "seemed to come from an entirely different era."

Mike Furbank, head of learning at the local authority, East Riding Council, said the school "did not have an issue with having a gay character - it was the language and tone of the scene that were problematic."

He said the school had objected to phrases including "fat little queer." Even after the language was toned down, "it was still deemed as unacceptable for 4- to 11-year-olds to be exposed to," Furbank said.

Opera North, which commissioned the piece, confirmed that its July 15 premiere in Bridlington, northeast England, had been scrapped. The company said it was impossible to stage the show without the school's participation.

Hall criticized Opera North for failing to support him, but the company said it had tried to mediate between the writer and the school.

Opera North said Hall's libretto "was presented in the early part of the year with acknowledgment that it would need negotiation with the community."

The company said it regretted that "both sides have been unable to move forward."

The opera company said it "absolutely rejects any accusations that it is at all discriminatory and is dismayed that anyone would draw these conclusions."

Hall specializes in tales of artistic endeavor set in England's working-class northern communities.

He is best known for "Billy Elliot," the 2000 movie about a coal miner's son who yearns to dance. It was adapted into a hit West End and Broadway show featuring music by Elton John.

Hall's play "The Pitmen Painters," about a group of amateur artists in a mining town, also had a Broadway run, and he has co-written the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's forthcoming movie "War Horse."

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While I'd be against age-inappropriate content relating to sex, language or drug taking, the lyric read out by the BBC interviewer was in my view, insufficient justification for cancelling this Opera North performance. If that was their sole objection, then I'm with Lee Hall on this 100%.

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