Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Abomination: A DUP Opera review – a rainbow over Belfast

7 May 2023

Iris Robinson’s inflammatory radio interview lit the blue touchpaper on an LGBTQ rocket whose rainbow colours are captured with power and brilliance in Conor Mitchell’s short chamber opera.

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

DUP politician Iris Robinson’s hubristic rise and fall was the catalyst for the change of law in Northern Ireland. It began with an uncomfortable radio interview in 2008 with Ulster Radio’s Stephen Nolan, in which she attempted to denounce the assaulters of a gay man while at the same time using her ‘Christian values’ to denounce the ‘sin’ of homosexuality. It ended with the discovery that Robinson had been having an affair with the 19 year old Kirk McCambley, and supplying him with cash. In between, politicians – particularly others in Robinson’s party – made hay with the trite ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ obfuscation, and this obvious bigotry, coupled with Robinson’s transparent demonstration of hypocrisy (and political disgrace), led to a revolution by the LGBTQ community in Northern Ireland, and, ultimately, to the lowering of the age of consent in 2008 and legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2019.

Conor Mitchell’s opera Abomination: A DUP Opera, running at the Queen Elizabeth Hall over the last few days, explores Robinson’s trajectory with a cast of ten, and the instruments of The Belfast Ensemble forming the pit band, conducted onstage behind a gauze screen by Tom Deering. It’s a simple set with few props; most of the scene setting is done via the screen, onto which are projected footage of the various spouting demagogues (Paisley père et fils feature heavily), newspaper headlines, and a timeline. Although the actions in the piece span several years, they are centred around the Nolan interview, with Tony Flynn (playing Nolan) appearing throughout the opera to pose his penetrating questions.

The only named singing role is Robinson herself, sung by soprano Rebecca Caine, who illustrates Robinson’s peculiar cognitive dissonance with agility – from steely brilliance to rich operatic wallowing. Other cast members portray politicians – singing in sync with the moving lips of the real thing onscreen – crowds and commentators.

“It’s a simple set with few props; most of the scene setting is done via the screen…”

Mitchell’s music is truly a rainbow – a glittering, exciting mix of colours. The opera begins in a Minimalist style with an obsessive ostinato, but it broadens out into more Modernist techniques, using angular recitative accompanied by a full orchestral sound of swooshing strings and harp, blaring brass and generous use of percussion. As the opera progresses all kinds of pastiche styles are pulled in, and the cleverness here is that the pastiche forms a kind of leitmotiv: it is often used to express crocodile tears, grandstanding to camera/microphone, and particularly for any biblical quoting (of which there is a deal). We have Mozartian tropes (Iris’ ‘I cannot think of anything more sickening’); a waltzy, lyrical Verdi-esque arietta ‘I have a lovely psychiatrist’; a lush rhapsodic passage for Robinson’s ‘I can’t honestly understand’. For Jim Wells’ blustering ‘Peter will not marry Paul in Northern Ireland’ speech we’re given a gloriously witty quintet that feels like the strange love child of Leonard Bernstein and Gilbert and Sullivan.

At the heart of the work is the concept of reclamation of hate speech by those at whom it is directed, and this shines through in many of the scenes with the chorus. There is ambiguity in the insults they hurl, as they may be genuine expressions of ‘abomination’, or the ironic return of the words by those being oppressed. Nowhere is this more evident than the comic emphasis of the word ‘Riddled’ (from a frothing newspaper article about AIDS) or the comedic ‘They are poofs’, where one of the crowd delivering the insult through a megaphone is wearing sparkly orange boots, lipstick and a party hat, his deliberately rougher voice contrasting with the more ‘operatic’ voices around him.

In a nod towards Baroque opera conventions, Mitchell sets Robinson’s bedroom scene with her toy boy as an elegiac ballet. No words are sung, and no comment is made, leaving the scene to speak for itself.

‘Abomination’ works on so many levels: it is politically hard-hitting; tightly sung and acted; intelligently assembled. The music is not only ingeniously composed and orchestrated, but it is instantly appealing to those who might not normally be attracted to opera. With all that the Good Friday agreement achieved under threat, this is truly an opera for our times.

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