Review by Raphael Kohn
Of all the ways I could have spent my coronation bank holiday weekend, I don’t think I anticipated a 75-minute Northern Irish opera about homophobia would be it. Yet, with the London premiere of composer Conor Mitchell’s opera ‘Abomination’, about the former First Lady of Northern Ireland Iris Robinson’s controversial and atrocious hatred of homosexuality, I don’t think there was a better way to spend it.
Against the backdrop of a year of relentless transphobia in the UK, Abomination feels more pertinent and urgent than it ever could have. Following Robinson, a born-again Christian MP from Northern Ireland, Abomination explores (through a completely verbatim libretto) the moment Robinson, in a radio interview, denounced homosexuality and called it the opera’s titular noun. The aftermath of this, including her vehement defence of her words and refusal to back down is revealed.
This is powered like a supercharged motor by the tremendous Rebecca Caine (London’s original Cosette in Les Misérables and an acclaimed opera singer too). Caine is well-known for her exceptional vocal talent, and she delivers a truly legendary performance. Her gorgeous soprano floats through the auditorium like a swan in flight, especially in her musically glorious yet lyrically chilling moment in which Robinson invites gay men to participate in so-called ‘conversion therapy’, telling radio host Stephen Nolan that she knows a “lovely psychiatrist” who “tries to help homosexuals”. Yet, Caine also manages to brutally spear the heart with vocal daggers as her vile homophobic hatred begins to pour out.
And pour out it does. Relentlessly.
Mitchell’s libretto, plucked word-for-word from interviews given by Robinson and quotes from various DUP members is a profoundly unsettling work, limitless in its homophobia. However, in such vehement hatred comes excellent comedy as the whole chorus chants “bestiality, incest and rape” with vitriol one moment, yet playfully sings “in the Garden of Eden, it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” in another. This is perfect political satire, opera-style.
This is paired with a strikingly modern score, composed by Mitchell, conducted by the talented Tom Deering and played to perfection by the Belfast Ensemble. Darting in style between contemporary atonality, to musical theatre-esque numbers and into glorious arias (particularly for Caine and her fellow cast member Sarah Richmond) worthy of the grandest opera houses, it is perfectly mimetic of the context of the story. It reminds us in its contemporariness how frighteningly recent the events were – and how urgent the message of tolerance and acceptance is. Luckily, the cast of ten are well up to the challenge of performing this piece, singing with passion and fire throughout.
Of particular note is the iconic Matthew Cavan, who may be better known to some of you as the drag performer Cherrie Ontop (a spectacular drag name, I must say). He sings with a pleasant tone, introducing a musical theatre vibe to the otherwise operatic atmosphere. Bringing some drag panache to the stage, Cavan dons a huge orange wig and heels and sashays around with a confident campness. Through all the vitriol of the harsh homophobia comes a particular lightness from him that elevates the production to another level entirely.
To amplify the reality of the piece, the staging is starkly minimal, with only a blank white stage on which projections are directed, and minimal furniture. Using real-life excerpts from newspaper articles, these projections elevate this production past its already stratospheric heights, highlighting the sung words in place of a subtitles board to hammer home the hatred in the libretto. Each person quoted is named and shamed in the projections; their smug faces are beamed onto the stage while their words are belted out into the auditorium.
Simultaneously terrifying, hilarious and deeply moving, Abomination is a masterclass in making a modern operatic masterpiece. With a powerhouse lead performance from Rebecca Caine and a thrilling book and score, this has all the hallmarks of a huge success. As it continues its run in Brighton (where undoubtedly it will do very well with the LGBTQ+ community there) and hopefully beyond, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to miss this.
Abomination: A DUP Opera has now finished its run at the Southbank Centre. It can next be seen at the Brighton Festival from 9-10 May. Tickets are available from https://brightonfestival.org/whats-on/abomination-a-dup-opera-6147/.
Photos by Pete Woodhead