In this article, written in April 2019 to celebrate his 30 year anniversary of working on arts performances in Holland Park, General Director Michael Volpe reflects the last three decades, including growing OHP from the ground up.
When you work in the arts, and do so at the same place for three decades, you have to accept that what you do has become a life’s work almost before you notice it. Ten years ago, I wrote a piece about completing 20 years at Holland Park and how that period had framed so many significant moments in my personal life. I remember James Clutton asking me at the time whether I was sure that I wanted to reveal so much. Since then I have written a book, Noisy at the Wrong Times, which revealed even more uncomfortable truths.
Perhaps I have an unusual compulsion to divulge my secrets. Or perhaps a working life immersed in music that expresses some of mankind’s most profound emotions – joy, terror, grief, delight – simply encourages candour. How might I persuade someone to explore the works we put on stage if I can’t connect with the heart of them? This is certainly how I consume opera, by finding parallels with my own life, and I’ve often sensed that our audiences do the same.
I’m not going to list every development of the last decade, but Opera Holland Park has not stood still. In 2015, we became an independent charity, a monumental step that has been a great success. As a company we have also suffered the loss of valued friends such as Dougie Turnbull, our company manager. In 2017, we were plunged into the depths of one of the UK’s great disasters when our much-loved colleague Debbie Lamprell perished in the Grenfell Tower fire. Yet that event brought out the best in our ‘family’ as we dealt with the consequences, and the company has gone on to honour the victims and survivors in productive and memorable ways.
The company has grown, but our motives, ambitions and guiding principles remain firm. Our mission to make opera accessible to all has been exemplified in the creation of the family opera, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the introduction of a wildly successful Schools’ Matinee performance in 2018 and film projects like From Footy to Verdi and Hip Hop to Opera. These innovations always felt risky, but the results were transformative. Almost by accident, it seemed as if we had made two instructional films on the subject of ‘how to make people love opera’. It turns out that all you have to do is give them a chance to watch it.
We moved into new repertoire with Britten (The Turn of the Screw), Strauss (Ariadne auf Naxos) and Jonathan Dove’s Flight. Each of you will have your favourite productions from the past decade, but for me these three shows, together with I gioielli della Madonna, The Queen of Spades and the 2015 revival of L’amore dei tre Re, shine through. Perhaps it is no coincidence that half of these productions showcased the growing talent of Natalya Romaniw, who we will see again in Iolanta this season. The nurturing of emergent singers, directors and conductors is a critical part of the OHP tradition, and during the past ten years, the birth and growth of our Young Artists Scheme – brought to life with the wonderful support of another of our absent friends, Christine Collins – has become one of the pre-eminent early career training programmes in the UK.
Life, however, is never simple. Since I last wrote in this way, I have experienced the deaths of both parents and a brother. The lives of my miscreant brother and my mother were inextricably linked in their tragedy. That’s why, for example, the scene in I gioielli della Madonna when Carmela tells Gennaro how she suffered and prayed for him as a sickly infant was so difficult for me to see every night. Yet isn’t that what we love about opera? Its eviscerating power? I have written elsewhere that the events of the past few years have left me a little broken, but perhaps they also rendered me more human.
The truth is that I have never been able to separate fully the two sides of life, OHP and non-OHP. I remarried in 2011, and the theatre hosted the reception. In her speech, my elder daughter paid tribute to the surroundings and my role in creating them. Having your daughter make a speech at your wedding is terribly Modern Family, but it did strike me how prominently Holland Park has featured in the lives of my children. I think it has likely caused them some miseries too. My daughter recently wrote that ‘the selfishness of childhood made me resent his job; the long summer nights spent hosting guests at work, and the tired weekends spent recuperating in solitude’. Nevertheless, her younger sister made her stage debut here in Norma (2014); so the cycle continues.
When tragedy strikes, many of us turn to music; I am no exception. Yvonne Howard, one of our most distinguished singers (who sings the role of another tortured mother in L’arlesiana this season), sang ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ from Strauss’s Four Last Songs at my mother’s funeral. This in turn meant that our first Strauss opera in 2018 had added significance for me. My brother’s funeral was the second time we had appropriated Will Todd’s beautiful arrangement of Amazing Grace as a memorial. We have used it since, too, in private memory of Debbie when, on an afternoon of abysmal grief, and with her mother in attendance, 60 singers stood on the walkway and delivered the hymn with many friends, volunteers and staff gathered to hear them. Will himself accompanied the chorus, and in 2018, for the Hope for Grenfell Memorial Gala, he added an orchestral arrangement as a company of astonishingly accomplished singers provided seven minutes of music that few will forget. These are not just maudlin personal recollections; they are real company achievements, and illustrate the way in which our personal and professional lives are interwoven.
I think many of us in the arts project our personalities and experiences onto our work. We’re emotional people and are sometimes prone to dense, inescapable lows. What we want audiences to experience is ferociously difficult to marshal into a cohesive whole. Creating an opera isn’t a process of drawing diagrams or entering algorithms into a computer. In order to arrive at an end point that will move, invigorate and dazzle an audience, we have to travel along unpredictable roads. Our responsibility is, after all, to represent the work of giants, creations that describe all that life entails, so is it any wonder that our own lives – or at least our feelings about them – become enmeshed? The pejorative term ‘luvvie’ doesn’t take account of this but perhaps it explains why, when patrons express a negative opinion, we don’t always take it with the grace you might expect.
What do the next ten years hold for Opera Holland Park? A new temporary theatre perhaps; one that harnesses the beauty of our environment, providing a space fit for the lyric work we create, as well as increased accessibility. Ensuring financial sustainability is a primary aim, and our growing army of supporters are with us in the vanguard. Building on the international reputation of the company and our burgeoning stable of co-productions is central to our plans, as is the further development of our award-winning Inspire programme.
Yet it is where we go with our work on stage that will determine what we will become in the future. Our Italian thread will continue. We will always reach out to more challenging operas while paying due respect to the classic repertoire our audiences love. Above all, I believe we need to create a company structure that will enable my name to be erased from the checklist of factors that apparently ‘ensure’ success. The company is Opera Holland Park, and imbuing it with powerful principles, practices and beliefs will guarantee that when I am happily whittling wood in a cabin on a Caribbean beach, drinking rum, the Opera Holland Park team will be carrying the company forward in precisely the way we intended it, and that it will still be the festival you know and love.