Last week, Hungary’s State Opera house called off 15 performances of the musical Billy Elliot. It came after the publication of a June 1 op-ed in the Hungarian outlet Magyar Idok titled “Scandalous Performance At The Erkel Theater.” The outlet is allegedly closely aligned with conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s administration. In the op-ed, the musical was accused of promoting homosexuality to children.
The musical, set in the early 1980s, features a young boy from working class Britain who aspires to perform ballet instead of boxing.
In a statement on its website, the opera wrote that the decrease in shows was the result of low interest due to the negative publicity after the op-ed.
“If parents hear from one side that Billy Elliot is gay propaganda, while from the other that this is terribly homophobic, they may conclude that our production is at least problematic, while in fact it is not. Everyone is making a mountain out of a molehill,” the director of the opera house, Szilvester Okovacs said, according to the BBC.
In the op-ed, Zsofia N. Horvath, whose existence journalists have not been able to verify, writes that Billy Elliot is “gay propaganda.” Though Horvath argues that homosexuality is something to tolerate, the piece condemns the subject of boys in tutus as inappropriate for a young audience and says the show “could turn children gay.”
In line with Orban’s push for a more ethnic-Hungarian demographic, Horvath further states, “The propagation of homosexuality cannot be a national goal when the population is getting older and smaller and our country is threatened by invasion.”
“How can such an important national institution as the opera go against the objectives of the state and use a performance made for young people around 10, at their most fragile age, for such pointed and unrestrained gay propaganda?”
Ticket sales have halved since the op-ed was published, according to the Guardian.
The show has been performed at the opera house since 2016. At that time, the same publication that ran the homophobic op-ed published a review only discussing the performance.
“More than 100,000 people have already seen Billy Elliot in Hungary, which means that it has been a success,” Okovacs told the BBC.
Billy Elliot seems to still receive a warm reception from those who attend it. Laszlo Habja, a schoolteacher from Budapest, tells INTO in an email that the show on June 21 had a packed house: “The audience was in ecstasy, and rightly so since it’s a brilliant musical. There were kids as young as 10 and seniors as old as 70 by my estimation.”
The Hungarian version of the musical, though, still shies away from the original queerness of Billy Elliot, leaving out the part where Billy’s friend comes out to him.
In the Budapest performance, Habja says, “the mentions of cross-dressing and embracing a queer identity are replaced by a generic acceptance of being different.”
Melanie Smith is a researcher at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the mother of Levi, one of the boys who play the title role of Billy Elliot. Smith says that after the announcements, some of the shows have been selling better, but there’s still concern over the entire situation.
“The thing that worries me is that [the cancellations] may have planted a seed for homophobia in Hungary for people who may have not thought about it. This is what really scares me,” she says. Smith tells INTO that it seems to fit the pattern of the Hungarian government’s attitude toward vulnerable groups.
The boys who play Billy, including Levi who attends the Madách Dance School in Budapest, are taking the cancellations well. “I don’t really think they understand why [the queer representations] in Billy Elliot became an issue since the show has already been performed already,” she says. Her son was more upset at the lack of performances the boys will have, since preparing for the role took over a year.
Smith says that she was notified of the cancellation through a person who liaises with the child performers. They announced the cut the day Levi started his run as Billy.
However, she believes that the shows would be reinstated maybe in the fall not only due to the response of the crowd but also because of alleged legal action that some of the actors in the play may supposedly take.
“Now I think everyone knows what Billy Elliot is, but not for a good reason,” Smith tells INTO. “We really thought it was just a stupid article by someone who may not have existed.”
Orban’s government won a significant victory back in April solidifying another two-thirds majority, meaning his Fidesz political party can make constitutional changes relatively easily. With this, the Hungarian right has become more emboldened.
The government, for instance, recently passed laws this week preventing assistance to “illegal” asylum-seekers. Information passed to asylum-seekers could result in a year in prison.
“State-funded media has been reined in a long time ago by the Orban government, but cultural institutions such as the Opera House or the Museum of Literature (also attacked in Magyar Idok recently) have enjoyed relative freedom until recently,” Anita Komuves, a journalist with Atlatszo.hu, an investigative journalism nonprofit and publication, says in an email to INTO.
The attack on Billy Elliot shows a change is happening and cultural institutions may now have to “fall in line now and not diverge from the government’s message.”
“The method is also very telling: they send messages publicly, through their own media so that all other cultural leaders can notice that they should start to be cautious,” says Komuves.
Orban and his government have targeted educational institutions as well. The ongoing situation with the Central European University (CEU) may cause the university to move to Vienna, Austria because of pressure from the government. In the past, the Orban government has attacked CEU for its gender studies department.
Also last week, another right-wing publication, Figyelo, published the names of researchers at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences that happened to work on subjects involving marginalized groups, like Roma people in Hungary or LGBTQ populations. One of those researchers is Judit Takacs who studies gender and sexuality in Europe, with a focus on Hungary.
Currently in Sweden on a temporary assignment, Takacs calls the cancellation of Billy Elliot a self-censorship by the opera house and says that the performance cuts show the growing strength of the right in Hungary.
“I’m sure cancelling Billy Elliot was an ad hoc idea,” Takacs says. The Fidesz-led government’s positions of conservative attitudes may have played a hand in the decision. The opera house and its director, she says, possibly wanted to conform to the government’s position. “They [the Hungarian government] want to reproduce more white, Hungarian, heterosexual children. That’s the main goal.”
Last year, Orban opened up a conference sponsored by U.S.-based, International Organization for the Family, which has been called a hate group by LGBTQ rights organizations.
At the event he told the crowd, “It’s important to say that it’s a national interest to restore natural reproduction. Not one interest among others — but the only one. It’s a European interest, too. It is the European interest,” according to Buzzfeed.
The cancellation of the Billy Elliot performances due in part to a review arguing against supporting LGBTQ identities fits into the overall movement of Hungary’s right, says Takacs.
“This is very similar to the attack on CEU and the recent attack on the scientists at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences,” she tells INTO. “It is obviously not a nice feeling to be singled out, but if you figure in the others, including CEU and my colleagues, I’m actually quite proud to be on this list.”
Takacs says that though these things are happening, there are still positive steps being made when it comes to LGBTQ visibility in Hungary. Recently, she says, a trans woman was reportedly given asylum in the country. It might be only one legal victory, but Takacs sees it still as a victory.
“We cannot say that everything is shut down and there is no way to achieve anything anymore and it’s all just bad and black and white. But it’s true that we have a strong pressure on us,” she says.
For Smith, who not only had Levi have some of his Billy Elliot performances canceled but had her colleagues at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences come under attack, the situations have just been building: “Your heart’s breaking for him and your heart’s breaking for society.”
Disclaimer: The author studied at CEU’s gender studies department for his M.A.