Anna Picard reflects on a most unusual year for Opera Holland Park.
Nostalgia is a slippery thing. What will we remember fondly of 2020? For music lovers, and especially lovers of opera, this has been a hard year. In the normal course of events, now should be the time to leaf back through childhood favourites. To hum along to Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, an opera composed for Christmas, or Massenet’s Cendrillon – Rossini’s Cenerentola being far too waspish to hit the sweet spot without delivering a sting.
If you turn from glass slipper and gingerbread escapism to realism, the excitement of Christmas is revealed in all its greedy, gaudy materialism in Act 2 of La bohème from the wildly expensive feast at Café Momus to Mimi’s new coral bonnet and the toys sold by Parpignol. Who knew that last minute shopping would be something we might miss? Who would have paused to consider the number of households when booking a table for supper before this year? Who could imagine that Café Momus would be closed?
There’s a reason La bohème still resonates in mid-life and beyond, even during the pandemic. It is the tenderness that Puccini makes us feel towards a group of young people living precariously, even recklessly, falling in and out of love, bickering and teasing, learning to be kind and generous, learning to suffer. Their behaviour is in the contract: your twenties are the time for taking risks. Pity those young people for whom a year of restrictions has thwarted a chance to fall in love, even disastrously. ‘Addio senza rancor’ may be the best response to 2020.
Last December we were looking forward to a summer of powerful tragedies – Eugene Onegin, Rigoletto, Le villi and Margot la Rouge – and one timelessly seductive romantic comedy, The Merry Widow. In March everything changed. These shows will return to Opera Holland Park in future seasons. For now we look forward to 2021 and the cruel beauty of La traviata, the delicious subversion of The Marriage of Figaro, the snap and swoon of The Cunning Little Vixen, and the slow-blossoming love in L’amico Fritz. How much sweeter the air will be by then.
If there has been one useful lesson to draw from this year it is to recognise with gratitude the closeness of our community. Not just in the generosity and loyalty of our Members and Supporters or the magnificent work of the Inspire team across the borough. But also in those moments when we were able to bring back some of our crew, artists, musicians, volunteers and audience to Holland Park for Pirates of Penzance, Heart’s Delight and the two Homecoming Concerts, and to welcome a new audience for Janie Dee’s spectacular performance in A Little Night Music.
For much of the year we have worked at home, keeping contact via Zoom, the platform where the casts and creative teams for our postponed productions met for drinks to mark what would have been their first days of rehearsals. The annual OHP Open Day was moved online in May – a first for all of us and a technical challenge embraced with tremendous energy and enthusiasm by the speakers on the panels, by the three conductors, Lada Valesova, Dane Lam and Matthew Kofi Waldren, by illustrator Rosie Brooks, by chorus master Richard Harker, the chorus and guest soloist John Savournin, and by choreographer Steve Elias and chorus member Caroline Carragher, who stepped up brilliantly when Steve’s internet connection went down.
In June we released Simon Wall’s film of Un ballo in maschera on our website and YouTube channel, toasting what would have been the opening week of the 2020 season. Still, the yearning to be together in the theatre remained very powerful. The days in which we achieved this, in this summer’s outdoor concerts and in filming Christmas with Opera Holland Park at Leighton House and outside Holland House, were magical. From our July 4 recording onwards, to hear live music after so much silence, to enjoy the collective experience after so much solitude, was a great gift. Not least in the surprise encore of ‘Hymn to the Sun’ from Iris, a retirement present to Michael Volpe from James Clutton and the OHP Chorus at our last Summer concert.
There was a further valuable lesson from the programmes for the Homecoming concerts and Heart’s Delight: that a single aria sung with a string quartet or a mixed ensemble of eight to twelve players from City of London Sinfonia can be a powerful musical snapshot of a character or a situation when taken out of its theatrical context. In cinematic terms, these numbers, some of them with a life beyond the operas from which they are drawn, are close ups.
However familiar the arias and songs are, to call them lollipops is to do them disservice. They provide an opportunity to focus on Mimì, Musetta, Carmen, Countess Almaviva, Rosa Mamai, Rodolfo, Danilo, Hanna, Julie Jordan, Gilda, Gremin, Violetta, Federico and Figaro without distraction – and perhaps to wonder how a fantasy party might play out were they all invited. Strong words would be exchanged. Federico’s obsession might turn to Carmen. Musetta would sit Gilda and Julie down for a lecture on male duplicity, cheered on by Hanna and Danilo.
There is a degree of fantasy, too, in Christmas with Opera Holland Park, a filmed concert in lieu of an event in which we can all be together to celebrate the close of one year and look forward to the next. The repertoire is deliberately diverse, including a chanson by Debussy, a Lied by Hugo Wolf, a satircal take on conspicuous consumption by Tom Lehrer, and one seasonal song that was considered too saucy to be played on the radio in the year of its release.
Of the five vocal soloists in the film, Elizabeth Karani, Ross Ramgobin and Julien Van Mellaerts will be appearing in the first production of the 2021 season, The Marriage of Figaro. There are also traditional carols from the OHP Chorus, directed by Richard Harker, to which you are very warmly invited to sing along.
The ethos of Inspire remains central to our work at all times. Among the OHP team there is a strong conviction that giving should not be restricted to Christmas. We are all aware that even with the promise of a vaccine this winter will be challenging for everyone, and most particularly for the most vulnerable in our society. For this reason, we will be collecting donations of warm clothing and other essentials for Refettorio Felix throughout January, to aid their work providing warmth and comfort to the homeless. As we continue to hone our preparations for the 2021 Season, we wish you a very happy Christmas and look forward with great excitement to welcoming you back home to the theatre in June.