An abominable showman
Abomination is a new opera starring Northern Ireland’s most famous drag queen. Cary Gee meets up with Matt Cavan to discuss homophobia, the art of drag, living with HIV, and life in Matt’s beloved Belfast
In a now infamous interview with BBC Radio Ulster presenter Stephen Nolan in 2008, Democratic Unionist Politician Iris Robinson, invited to offer her views on a recent violent homophobic attack in the city called homosexuality disgusting, loathsome, nauseating, wicked and vile. It was, she said, an abomination but one she believed could be “cured” through conversion therapy.
Her words have been skillfully stitched together to form the libretto for an opera called Abomination, which stars Northern Ireland’s most famous drag queen, Matt Cavan. I caught up with Matt to get the low-down on what promises to be a show every bit as incendiary as Robinson’s original broadcast.
I begin by asking him how and where he is?
I’m at home in East Belfast. I’ve just finished rehearsals for a new musical called Mirrorball. It’s based on my life and my drag career and we go into production next week. The writers [Garth McConaghie and Patrick J O’Reilly] saw a documentary I made for the BBC a few years ago and they thought my story was fantastic… I’m a drag queen who lives with HIV and has a real heart for young people. The musical is aimed at teenagers upwards. It’s about the wonderful world of show business and all that comes with it.
Before that there’s the small matter of starring in the London premiere of Abomination.
Can you tell a little about the history of the opera and how you came to be involved with it?
I’ve been involved with Abomination since the initial concept. I’ve worked with the Belfast Ensemble, a collective of artists spearheaded by an incredibly talented human called Conor Mitchell. Conor had the idea to put the words of the DUP into an opera. He created this award-winning opera in 2019. Then, obviously, the world stopped. We continued to work together throughout lockdown. I did a song cycle called Ten Plagues, which is by the amazing queer playwright Mark Ravenhill and Conor; I also did a children’s opera called The Musician. We also managed to get a professionally filmed version of Abomination finished. Conor spent a lot of his lockdown editing it before it was released online. The reaction was huge. It was reviewed in a lot of countries. It was like doing a world tour from your living room! The whole cast dressed up in their tuxedos, as you would for the opening night of an opera, and watched it at home!
Abomination has been described as “hilarious, radical and queer”. Do those adjectives apply equally to Cavan himself?
I think all of those words specifically mean me! Abomination is hilarious but in a very odd way. Especially for a queer person watching the show. There is a song called They are Poofs which is based on statements given by Sammy Wilson [a DUP politician who is still in parliament and has previously condemned gays as perverts]. It’s a horrible statement and not something you want to hear. The words are so vicious but set to such fabulous music. It funny, but you can’t quite believe you’re laughing.
As an HIV positive person I get to sing AIDS is the Curse of God which was specifically given to me by Conor. He knows my story and what those words have done to me. It allowed me to regain the power, take those words and create something beautiful out of them. What’s amazing about being a queer person in this opera is to take something that’s so damaging and create award-winning art from it. As an artist you can’t ask for anything more.
How did the writers of Abomination resist the temptation to portray Robinson as the ultimate pantomime villain?
That was one thing we did not want to portray her as. We wanted to be fair. While we were rehearsing at the end of 2019 Connor brought in a new piece of music, which appears at the end of show. It’s heartbreaking, so beautiful and honest. You end up really feeling for this woman. It was very odd. This woman, who in Northern Ireland is known as the Wicked Witch of the North, when you have those opinions of her.
Does Cavan feel safe living as a gay man in Northern Ireland?
For a long time I really didn’t feel very safe. I do think that there are still some really deeply-seated homophobic views here in NI. I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking through Belfast holding my partner’s hand (not that I have a partner), but I wouldn’t think twice about it If I was in London, Dublin or Glasgow. My home city, the place where I should feel most comfortable, I think is still quite an uncomfortable place.
Matt regularly takes part in an event called the Drag Queen Story Hour, where he reads aloud to children at a Belfast city library. Recently protestors have gathered outside brandishing placards demanding “Leave our Children Alone”. So I ask him what it is about drag queens that people find so frightening?
I would love to answer that but I genuinely can’t get my head around it. Drag queens are getting a really rough ride at the minute. We are quite a big thing within the cultural wars because gender is a big thing within the cultural wars and we don’t abide by gender. We play with it. We f**k it up. Some do it in a very sexual way. The infamous drag out there, the gay bar drag you just wouldn’t do for kids. But I am an actor, a story teller. There are some bad apples out there but just like in any other jobs there are going to be bad people. Where drag queens are doing a story event they need to be so careful. There are some drag queens who have said some very questionable things at these events and they are now the headlines. I’m going through a court case at the moment where I am being tarnished with the same brush used to paint someone else. What is being said about me is that because I am a gay man in a dress I must want to get close to these kids for something sinister. I’m being called a paedophile, a nonce, and a groomer. Because I was reading books about gender, people protesting said that I was trying to coax people into becoming trans! It’s just mental! I was just hired as an actor to do my job. Then I get six months of death threats: the police had to come to my house ten times!
Apart from Matt Cavan, actor and singer, there is also his alter-ego Cherrie Ontop. What kind of woman is she?
Cherrie is a diva. She is the Elaine Paige of Northern Ireland. She used to get very drunk during her Sunday afternoon shows. But she is much funnier than I am. I don’t really understand how that works! She is glamorous but odd. You might want to bring your mum to her show but it’s probably best to leave your husband at home because no straight man would be safe! She is an incredible flirt and really does have a soft spot for straight boys.
When Matt was 20 years old he was diagnosed with HIV. What impact has living with HIV had on his life and career?
The first couple of years were really grim. Mental health was the main factor. Physically the virus is now undetectable which is the best thing ever. I can’t pass the virus on to anyone. I take my one tablet a day but I have come into contact with a lot of people who just think I am a walking disease. People who still have a real Philadelphia mindset. They think we are all walking around with lesions on our body and dying. There are still those fears out there 40 years on. People still think this is some kind of gay, disgusting disease. At least that’s what I’ve found in Northern Ireland. Only four years ago one of our politicians in Stormont said that he did not realise HIV affected straight people! That is just shocking.
Does Cavan feel an obligation to speak up?
Yes. I do. I feel that because of the platform I have, the social media I have and because I’m a drag queen and drag queens can say anything. I do feel a responsibility to talk about it. I’m very proud of that.
Abomination: A DUP Opera is at Queen Elizabeth Hall. May 5, 6 & 7.