The Newtownards Road in the heart of Protestant, unionist east Belfast is the unlikely setting for rehearsals of Abomination: A DUP Opera, the incendiary work that will open the Outburst Queer arts festival in the city next month.
The building is surrounded by murals recording the unionist struggle; there is a memorial to Ulster Defence Association volunteers nearby, and union jacks adorn many houses and lamp-posts. Yet here, in the heartland of the Democratic Unionist party, composer Conor Mitchell is hatching an opera that dramatises an incident that showed the socially conservative, Christian evangelical party at its most bigoted.
That incident was a phone interview in June 2008 in which Radio Ulster presenter Stephen Nolan talked to Iris Robinson, then a DUP MP and wife of Northern Ireland’s first minister, Peter Robinson. In the interview, which came soon after a homophobic assault on a gay man in Newtownabbey, north of Belfast, Robinson branded homosexuality an “abomination”.
Mitchell has used a verbatim account of that lengthy and hugely controversial phone conversation, together with other DUP statements attacking homosexuality over the last 40 years, to create the libretto of an hour-long opera that arrives in Belfast at the most sensitive of moments. As well as the DUP being the pivotal player in the battle over Brexit, same-sex marriage and abortion today are reaching a key stage on the road to legalisation in Northern Ireland. In theory, the failure of the Stormont assembly to reconvene means that, following legislation at Westminster earlier this year, both will now automatically be legalised early in 2020, though gay and women’s rights activists still expect there to be efforts to block liberalisation.
The festival’s artistic director, Ruth McCarthy, insists the opera, parts of which were tried out at last year’s festival, wasn’t chosen to coincide with these historic events: “We wish we were that organised!” The Brexit and same-sex marriage deadlines had not been fixed, she says, when the festival was planned.
Mitchell, who set up the Belfast Ensemble music and theatre group in 2017, has never forgotten the Robinson-Nolan interview. “In 2008, I had had enough of central London and wanted to come home to reconnect with my family and live somewhere with no flatmates and get a grand piano. I found the most amazing place; I had a few commissions for Aldeburgh; I was feeling like a million dollars – and then that came on breakfast radio. Within a few years, I was drinking myself to death.”
He says that, for a gay man, the storm Robinson triggered was overwhelming. “There was suddenly a massive debate in Northern Ireland about, effectively, do gay people have souls? I thought, ‘I have made a huge mistake [coming back].’ It ate away at me for a long time.” He sees it as the catalyst for the personal problems that beset him, though he overcame them and has been sober since October 2014 – a date tattooed on his neck in Roman numerals.
Mitchell insists Abomination is not anti-unionist. “People have accused us of having a republican agenda,” he says, “but we haven’t. My art is very political, but it’s totally bipartisan.” The message underlying the opera is that “words have weight” – if you demonise a section of the population, there will be consequences. Press reports of the higher-than-average suicide rate among LGBT people in Northern Ireland are pinned to the wall of the rehearsal room to underline the point.
But Mitchell doesn’t intend to be preachy, or tell an enlightened audience what they already know. Instead, he plans to let Robinson’s arias of disgust and hellfire spiral into anarchic ecstasy. “I am clinging to that word ‘party’ in Democratic Unionist party,” he says. “DUP members come on stage one by one and then all hell breaks loose. There was a huge rumpus here over gay cake, so we’ll have cake thrown all over the place; Matthew Cavan [a well-known Belfast-based actor and drag queen] will get into drag; we’ll have red, white and blue streamers; and an angel will descend and make love to Iris on a bed.”
The angel represents 19-year-old Kirk McCambley who, it emerged in 2010, had been having an affair with the then 59-year-old Iris Robinson at the height of the “abomination” controversy in 2008. “I love the idea of creating chaos out of order,” says Mitchell, who believes the Robinson interview undid all the DUP’s attempts to become respectable, ripping away the curtain to expose the bigotry behind it. He intends to present an open, unbuttoned party, but probably best not to offer DUP leader Arlene Foster a complimentary ticket.
• Abomination, A DUP Opera is at the Lyric theatre, Belfast, 8-10 November, with a preview performance on 7 November.