On Philip Venables’ “The Gender Agenda”

By · Photography © Mark Allen · Date 4/19/2018

Opera so often has an aftertaste of evil. The character of Osmin in Mozart’s “Entführung aus dem Serail” is an embarrassing Middle Eastern caricature absurdly obsessed with blood and gore. Wagner’s knights and gods like to address their female counterparts simply as “woman.” Blackface still makes regular appearances in contemporary stagings of Verdi’s “Otello.” In Philip Venables’ “The Gender Agenda,” premiered at the Southbank Centre in London on April 12, 2018, featuring the London Sinfonietta under Jessica Cottis and the “anti-drag” performer David Hoyle, there was no such bitter aftertaste. Instead, the of-the-moment goodness of the work was hard to miss. (The German premiere will take place on April 22 in Frankfurt with Ensemble Modern.)

The positivity of “The Gender Agenda” was reflected in the atmosphere at the Southbank Centre. It was premiered on a gray, gloomy London evening, but inside, audience members flounced with anticipation. (Full disclosure: Ricordi, Venables’ publisher, covered my travel costs. I previously interviewed Venables here.) An attractive tall blond man in a blue jumpsuit lounged against the bar. Hoyle, wearing heels, fishnet stockings, a silver miniskirt, a T-shirt with the word “melancholy” printed in small letters, a pink sequin jacket, and makeup that was part drag queen Nina Bo’Nina Brown, part killer doll Annabelle, called the crowd to attention. He addressed us as “you lovely open-minded people.”

As we entered the concert hall, insistent hi-hat quarter notes from “piped Muzak” were audible. The London Sinfonietta musicians improvised lightly over them. A member of a Sprechchor with long curly hair waved at friends in the audience from the stage; a young man in a Bordeaux-colored button-down showed a girlfriend excerpts from his Grindr chats. Hoyle took the stage to cheers and hollers; then the audience quieted down, and the hi-hat quarter notes revealed themselves as part of a goofy lounge music track. Hoyle told us to greet our neighbors. I turned to mine, a stylish young blond English woman there with her mother, who studiously ignored me. Hoyle explained the concept of the piece to us: musical theater as gameshow. “The butch against the femme, the Mickey against the Minney, the Donalds against the Melanias,” he said. (That got a laugh.) The orchestra accompanied him with syncopated, rhythmic music redolent of the American high school band repertoire. “We’re a spectrum not a divide… / Penis or vagina, just leave them outside,” the Sprechchor added.

After his introduction, Hoyle selected two teams by throwing out blue and pink stuffed kittens into the audience. Those who caught them were divided into groups of four. The teams were initially composed of seven men and one woman; after a woman in the audience cried out, “Why are there so many men?” she traded places with a man—the only person on stage who appeared to be over the age of 25 was gone. The women were both pretty, the men, all gay, gorgeous without exception. Then the games began: in the first, “Gender Render” (charades), a team member drew a gender-related buzzword while his teammates tried to guess what it was. In the second, the teams had to dress up one member as a “genderfluid unicorn” using toilet paper and tinfoil. For both games, the blue team, in an inversion of society’s structural discrimination, was hit with “penalties”: less time and space to draw, and, in the case of the unicorn challenge, “man ears,” or noise-canceling headphones, so that the team members doing the dressing ostensibly couldn’t hear one another. The pink team, thanks to a superior unicorn rendering—the cute guy taking his shirt off probably didn’t hurt—destroyed the blue team, 1001 to one.

Where was the music in all this? Venables, who is capable both of driving, humorously energetic music and gorgeous groaning, unresolved-suspension-filled sound worlds, restricted himself mostly to the former. (He also appeared as a news anchor on video during scripted “commercial breaks.”) The music was pleasingly spiky, but I didn’t realize quite how much of it I had missed in the bustle until I saw the score. There was also a quote of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto to the flashing surtitle “homosexual music,” and, like Charles Ives’s “Concord” Sonata, an excerpt of the beginning to Beethoven’s Fifth. But the real star of the evening was not the music, but Hoyle. His charisma carried the piece. I wonder, though, how much this effect had to do with an intrinsic strength in “The Gender Agenda”: it’s honestly hard to imagine a classical concert with Hoyle, or any drag queen really, ending up a failure.

By minimizing the role of music and focusing on a kind of satirical entertainment, “The Gender Agenda” was received as something other than a performance of new music or even new theater. I think it also deserves to be critiqued as a work of pop culture, where it didn’t always match the competition. David Hoyle was funny; he wasn’t as funny as Bianca del Rio, for example, can be. (His timing, in particular, wasn’t always on point. The score is strict, so it may have been hard to stay on top of all the cues while feeling the room for comic timing.) The jokes about gender felt, at times, like a shadow of online meme-ing, and in fact at one point referenced a Twitter conversation about mansplaining that was actually funnier to read while scrolling through Twitter when it happened.

In that sense, “The Gender Agenda” was very much a piece of the internet age. There was something of online point-scoring, bubble-building, virtue-signaling about the piece. When Hoyle exhorted the audience to “overthrow the military industrial complex,” it was obvious there were no advocates of military interventionism in the room; when he encouraged us to “transcend gender,” we knew that our neighbors were not advocates of the strict binary. Instead of trying earnestly to convince us, the piece assumed that we already agreed with its political and social outlook. There was something pleasant, yet almost eerie, about having your political beliefs so accurately estimated by strangers, then having them fed back to you. No characters in “The Gender Agenda” made statements or had motivations that challenged me: it was almost like a post selected for me by the Facebook algorithm.

The political rightness in Venables’ new piece never felt cynical or insincere. It was filled with what Dylan Thomas once described as “the moving irrelevancies of good news.” Still, I wished for something just a bit off in “The Gender Agenda.” I found myself thinking of the “Ring” and Virgil’s Aeneid, two works that make emotionally resonant cases for deeply alienating ways of looking at the world. The more completely I felt my outlook reflected in “The Gender Agenda,” the more I found myself wishing it had something to make me itchy on the inside—a tiny drop of poison in the chalice. ¶