Opera Holland Park directors: ‘Our secret is as little bullshit as possible’
Each summer, a major, popular opera festival takes place just off Kensington High Street in a temporary theatre erected in Holland Park. Before Opera Holland Park got going in 1996, the venue was regularly used by various visiting companies, but it was opera-loving council employee Michael Volpe who persuaded his senior colleagues at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea that it would be better if they ran the venue themselves. Indeed, he proceeded to do just that.
“It was a brave move by the council, but it was as much out of necessity as anything else – to ensure that we had productions that we knew benefited from the entire budget, as opposed to seeing half of it going to an independent producer. It also meant we could try new things.”
His imaginative determination paid off. The festival was soon mounting an annual season of up to six varied works sung, played and staged to a standard that seemed to rise every year.
A factor that gave the repertoire unique distinction was Volpe’s own predilection for the operas of Puccini’s forgotten Italian contemporaries – many of them not staged in the UK for many decades. “I love that repertoire. It hits you between the eyes. Nobody else seemed to be doing it, and we were convinced there was an appetite for it, so it has been rewarding to see it becoming ever more popular among other companies – and among the critical community, too.”
Season after season, operas by Mascagni, Catalani, Zandonai, Cilea and Montemezzi joined standard pieces by Verdi, Rossini, Donizetti, Bizet, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Janacek – and audiences clearly took to them. Even now, they represent the company’s artistic trademark. Meanwhile, to strengthen the administrative team, Volpe decided to bring in a producer to see the individual shows through from conception to execution.
At the time when he arrived at Holland Park in 2000, James Clutton had already been working for several years as a theatrical producer – either for himself or, latterly, for Bill Kenwright. But it was on a break from Kenwright’s operation that he noticed an ad for a Kensington-based opera festival that was looking for a project manager.
“I thought it might be quite interesting, so I went off and met Mike,” says Clutton. “The two of us hit it off immediately. I’d never produced an opera but I knew how to produce shows. He told me that most of it was already cast: what he needed was someone to make sure it happened. Six shows all at once – not a problem.”
5 things you need to know about Opera Holland Park
1. The company builds its 1,000-seat performance space from scratch every year.
2. Opera Holland Park has played a key role in reintroducing late Italian rarities to the modern repertoire.
3. It has enjoyed one of the longest running sponsorship partnerships with Investec Wealth and Investment.
4. The company is considered to be one of the most accessible in British opera, offering 1,400 free tickets each season and more than 2,000 seats at just £18.
5. Its stage backdrop is one of the most important 17th-century houses in England – the Grade I-listed Holland House.
On the last night of what had been an exciting season, Clutton thought to himself, “ ‘I’m going to miss this.’ Mike and his boss at the time said, ‘We’d be sorry to lose you.’ I said, ‘I don’t have to go’, so they said: ‘Then stay!’ So it became permanent. What was originally three months has turned into 17 years.”
The ongoing partnership of Volpe as general director and Clutton as director of opera has clearly worked. Volpe explains why: “The essence, I think, is as little bullshit as possible – an emotional approach but with real seriousness. We agree that the audience comes first and that you carry them with you rather than forcing things down their throats.”
Clutton describes some of the changes that have helped give Holland Park its competitive edge – including a larger and better auditorium. “Our first theatre seated 800; now it’s 1,001.” Young talent has featured consistently. “In the early days it was for economic reasons that I had to find younger singers, because they were cheaper and weren’t booked up so early. Now it’s more of a philosophical thing. We see hundreds of people at audition every year.”
“At the producing level, if you’re doing Carmen or Boheme, the critics and the public have already seen it dozens of times. With some of the unusual things that Mike loves, like Wolf-Ferrari’s I Gioielli Della Madonna, or Montemezzi’s L’amore Dei Tre Re, it’s like having an opera that’s just been written.”
Eventually, and by mutual agreement, the financial underpinning from the local council was brought to an end; the festival has been independent since 2016. “It was genuinely an amicable split – one of those occasions when both partners think it’s for the best.” While Clutton pays tribute to the council’s long-term support, he acknowledges that with the political landscape as it is, a local authority supporting an opera company was becoming difficult to sustain.
“Council budgets are done yearly. That was always hard for us. For Mike and I, the biggest thing is that now we can plan further ahead and we’re able to act in a more entrepreneurial way. Last year we did a co-production with Danish National Opera, which previously would have been tricky. Next year our staging of Flight is going to Scottish Opera, and we’re sharing with them a new production of Ariadne Auf Naxos.”
It’s clearly been a successful formula. What is their overall ethos? “The overused word is ‘accessibility’. It’s more than just cost. With Mike and I being the two bosses, it’s an attitude as well – the way we both talk about opera. We don’t try to dumb it down, but it’s not a magic circle you can’t get into. I’m always pulling people up who say they don’t like opera by saying, ‘You know, if you went to a restaurant and had a meal you didn’t like, you wouldn’t say I don’t like food.’ ”
In Kensington they could, of course, have a more expensive pricing structure: this year seats range from £18 (the Inspire ticket scheme) to £77, and various special offers are available. In addition, every year 1,000 free tickets are available for under-18s. “It’s not a geographical thing: they don’t need to be local. For under-16s, the adult who goes with them gets a free ticket as well.”
Who is their audience? “There’s a heavy local presence – though not exclusively. Some of our audience come back to see show after show, year after year, but there are also a lot of first-time opera-goers.”
Crucially, there’s also a genuinely relaxed and informal feel to the whole enterprise. “That’s deliberate,” explains Clutton. “For instance, I like wearing ties, but front of house I tend not to: if you see one of the two bosses not wearing a tie, it’s not a big deal, but it’s a statement. People ring up and say, ‘What’s the dress code?’ I tell them, ‘Unless you’re in the show, it doesn’t matter.’ ”
What have been their outstanding successes? Clutton immediately cites Flight, Jonathan Dove’s airport opera, in 2015. “That’s probably my top one, because it was a tough show for audiences that don’t always think about contemporary opera. I always say that was the best week in my career bar none, because we opened Puccini’s Il Trittico on the Tuesday, and Flight on Friday – two massive pieces in four days.”
Volpe’s personal highlights also include Il Trittico, plus Janacek’s Katya Kabanova (coming back this season), as well as – naturally from his favourite repertory – L’amore Dei Tre Re and I Gioielli Della Madonna.
They’re also immensely proud of the success of the first work they commissioned – the family opera Alice (2013), based by composer Will Todd and librettist Maggie Gottlieb on Lewis Carroll and performed al fresco in the park itself; Opera Holland Park has also presented it indoors in the Linbury Studio Theatre and it’s been widely taken up elsewhere.
“We’ve done 62 performances ourselves,” Clutton tells me, “and this year we’re doing another 12. For a new piece, that’s quite something.”
Profile: Opera Holland Park
Status: charitable company (since separation from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in October 2015)
Number of performances: Between 28 and 34 of four opera productions and the Royal Ballet School (2017: La Rondine, Don Giovanni, Kat’a Kabanova and Zaza)
Audience figures (per season): Average 98% house in 2016 (31,500 tickets)
Number of employees: Approximately 16 full-time, expanding to more than 200 during the season
Number of members (Friends of Opera Holland Park): Around 2,000
Turnover: Approximately £4.1 million in 2015/2016
Funding levels: No repeat core state funding. Original grant from Royal Borough is drawn down
Michael Volpe, general director: email@example.com
James Clutton, director of opera: firstname.lastname@example.org