I like opera…There, I’ve said it. In truth, I’m probably in good company admitting that in The Arbuturian but you can never be too careful these days. In certain company it’s a bit like confessing you have syphilis. Some people would think you’re pretentious, too sophisticated for them, price yourself out of their company. The point being that it can be a little alienating. I was once at a dinner party when, as the music playing in the background had run its course, I volunteered my iPod. I’d been listening to Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. Perhaps a glass or two of wine had lowered my guard and raised my confidence but, sure as I was that this was good background music to a sophisticated soirée, the minute the soprano began the haunting melody of King of Thule, my minutes at that dinner were numbered. Groans emanated from some, voluminous objections from others. Eventually our host stepped in and put Snow Patrol back on repeat. That was that, then. My open interest in opera crept back into the closet.
The Arbuturian has always deigned to cover the cultural offerings it comes across but opera has perhaps been conspicuous in its absence. I’ve been meaning to put something together on the art form, however, particularly since I’ve been several times and in several places, but given the nature of the periodical it’s difficult simply reviewing a single production. Admittedly, the Royal Opera House can run a series of performances over a few weeks – thereby making any early review relatively current – but, if I’m honest, I can’t pretend to compete with the weightier abilities of the more established critics. What was required was something more generic, an angle on the subject with a broader base, something that encompassed opera as an art form and how it’s perceived and received by our readers and, perhaps, by the public at large.
And along came Opera Holland Park.
I don’t know what I was expecting as I walked into the members’ bar at what is fast becoming The Arbuturian’s second home, Quo Vadis in London’s Soho, but it certainly wasn’t James Clutton and Mike Volpe. That is to say it was James and Mike, obviously, since they’re the Producer and General Manager respectively, but they weren’t in white tie and tails. There wasn’t a cravat in sight. And within minutes they were talking about football. However, introductions having been made and G&Ts ordered, conversation soon turned to that great leveller: opera.
For those not in the know – myself included – Holland Park has been the setting of theatre and other entertainment for some time. The site of the former Holland House, a Jacobean mansion bombed during a ten-hour raid by the Luftwaffe in 1940, it was capitalised on by some enterprising types in the 1950s who began to use it as a theatre. This tradition continued in earnest through the following decades, most notably becoming a host for jazz in the ‘80s.
Opera had been going strong there for about three years – a solution to the Greater London Council’s complaints that jazz “makes too much noise” – before Mike joined in 1989, with a mix of amateur and semi-pro productions, and as part of a wider repertoire that included contemporary dance, drawing in a crowd on account of the variety of what was on offer. Mike’s arrival heralded a new era with an emphasis on marketing and publicity and the venue soared to popularity as they drafted in producers and small companies. This in turn, however, led to a lottery of what was on offer with no overall standard being maintained. Upset at having paid out for poor quality productions, Mike proposed only one solution: they’d have to produce their own. In 1996 they staged their first in-house Opera Holland Park production, Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. Two followed the next year and it began to flourish. “We had all sorts of grand ideas; blending experience with emergent singers, using British-based singers, “ says Mike “and by 2000, when James arrived, we did every opera in the season.”
But it wasn’t all a fairy tale. The trouble seemed to be that the artistic side held sway over the management, largely there only to administrate, leading to producers draining coffers in the name of art. “I was starting to understand very quickly the relationship between the artistic and the management,” says Mike, “and what was very clear was that the artistic held sway which, to me, was a load of old bollocks.”
“Do excuse our vernacular,” James cuts in, “we’re from Kensington.”
Since Mike was on the front line with the Council, justifying productions going thousands over budget was a tall order, so he stepped in, advising they needed someone with production experience. “We needed someone who wasn’t simply an administrator. I wanted to find someone who wasn’t from the world of opera so we advertised for a production manager, somebody who didn’t have this inbred cap-doffing thing”. Several unsuitable interviewees later, enter stage right James Clutton.
“We spent most of the evening talking about football, I think”, says Mike. “For me the appeal of James was that, ironically, he wasn’t from the world of opera. He was from the West End where you don’t have endless budgets and you don’t spend money for no reason – there was a mindset I thought could work.”
Having worked with Bill Kenwright and Peter Hall in London’s West End, for James there was an appeal to stepping into the opera world. “For me it was producing in a different discipline. To work in arts, particularly with the rate of pay, you have to enjoy it and I’d started to lose the enjoyment factor of touring shows.” Taking six months off for a change of pace, James took a job at a law firm and then, “I saw this advert. I can’t put my finger on why I went for it – I’d been to ENO maybe four times and I had no real appreciation of opera – but I did. I remember telling Mike, ‘Look, I don’t really know much about opera. But I can put a show on.’ And that was it.”
So did Mike have an innate appreciation of opera? “I come from an Italian family, all my uncles drive me mad with it, and I went to a school where we did a lot of classical music and singing so I’d got some appreciation but I couldn’t say I was a huge fan. I was comfortable with it. Neapolitan songs are more my thing.” Herein lies a modesty of knowledge, however. For someone who claims not to have much interest in it, when I turn the questions on to the next season and what drives the inspiration behind it, Mike switches almost to a default encyclopaedic understanding of opera’s pantheon.
“That default position is more inherent in Italians than Brits,” says James. “Telling former colleagues I now work in opera takes people by surprise”. I wonder if there is a sort of snobbishness about it in this country. “We could spend our lives talking about this and breaking it down,” sighs Mike, “it’s still out there on a limb.”
As the conversation hurtles inevitably towards the elitism of opera, like an elephant on the table there was a matter of a certain production outfit in Central London I wanted to mention and ask how these chaps thought they measured up.
“The Royal Opera House is a world class organisation, in football terms they’re Real Madrid.” I seize on the football analogy and press them for a comparison. “Say the Opera House is the England team,” James volunteers, “and Glynbourne and ENO are premiership…” they glance at each other and, with an almost cognoscente response, Mike clips, “We’re Aston Villa.”
But such a comparison is unfair. It’s never been their intention to compete but what’s evident about their intent is a desire to make it accessible. And on that level they compete admirably. 48,000 people through the doors in a season is a pretty good dent in the armour of opera’s elitism. That accessibility is a big motivation behind Holland Park. “It’s part of our intention personally, because we’re not funded by the arts council but by the RBKC, a municipal authority. But all of these things we’ve instigated about accessibility have come from the two of us and a desire to make it work, to prove it can be done,” James explains.
“On prestige we can’t compete but on a pound-for-pound basis, we’d be right up there. Not only what you pay for a ticket but what we spend on productions and what we put on stage. We get judged against all those other guys in spite of not commanding the budgets. We’re inevitably compared to the big companies and, in that sense, we’re a victim of our own success. But that’s a nice thing though, particularly when the reviews started qualifying our productions, saying this or that production wasn’t as good as the Opera House, but it was better than ENO.”