Interview published in April 2022 reproduced with permission from Opera Magazine.
Over the past 20-odd years James Clutton has steadily developed a reputation as one of the best producers in the British opera business. A universally liked, straight-talking and indomitably cheerful character, he worked alongside Michael Volpe to raise Opera Holland Park from parochial scale and modest achievement to become a significant (and award-winning) fixture on the national scene. Since Volpe moved on in 2020, Clutton has been left in overall charge as CEO and Director of Opera. Combining fresh thinking with grounded practical experience and natural management skills, he presides over an al fresco inner-city summer festival with a turnover of £3m that is more informal than the swish country-house model yet free of the strings that come with Arts Council subsidy. One might think that someone with his outstanding personal gifts and horse sense would be a shoo-in for the much bigger task of turning round the fortunes of English National Opera. But the Coliseum’s loss has certainly been Holland Park’s gain.
Clutton doesn’t come from an establishment or Oxbridge background. Hailing from Tottenham (he remains a fervent Spurs supporter), he started his professional life as a photographer, with an enthusiasm for jazz and pop music—‘I played a bit of guitar, a bit of piano’. Together with a friend he tried his hand at writing a musical ‘on the side’. It was good enough to be staged and did the rounds, but its success was limited. ‘I remain quite proud of it, even though I soon realised that it wasn’t going to make the West End or my fortune. But what I did discover in the process was that I thoroughly enjoyed the business of casting and negotiating and booking venues. So when someone told me that those were the sorts of thing a producer sees to, I decided to give up photography and give it a whirl. Before that, I didn’t really know that producers existed outside Hollywood.’
Having cut his teeth on fringe and one-person shows, he built up to a production of Brecht and Weill’s Happy End—‘a piece I still love’. Then Bill Kenwright, the big commercial theatrical producer, got wind of Clutton’s activities and gave him a job. ‘Working for Bill was my equivalent of a university education, and I’ll be eternally grateful for what I learnt under him. I was assigned to help on everything from Filumena with Judi Dench to Abba tribute shows. I totally loved it, but I was at it all hours and failing to have any life of my own, so by the end of the 1990s I was exhausted and had to give it up and take a break.’
While he was on sabbatical his eye was caught by an advertisement in the Guardian offering a three-month position producing the summer season at Opera Holland Park, where performances are presented to audiences of up to 1,000 seated under a canopy, with the handsome Jacobean facade of Holland House as backdrop to the stage. At that time this was still an underdeveloped ad hoc operation, directly managed and underwritten by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s leisure and culture department. ‘Even though I knew almost nothing about opera or the opera world, I thought, why not? It would tide me over and add another string to my bow.
‘I got the job and met up with Mike Volpe, who had already been there about ten years. They brought me in because that was the first year devoted entirely to shows that we’d produced ourselves—before that they’d often been imported. So Mike and I clicked, that three-month contract turned into a permanent job, and I’m still here over 20 years later.
‘Mike was the opera buff, with a special love of the verismo repertory. I was never worried about admitting what I didn’t know: I was ready to learn on the job and I certainly knew a lot about producing. Mike did the fundraising, sponsorship and marketing; I did the casting, assembled the creative teams and oversaw the money side. What I had ultimately found a bit soul-destroying working for Bill Kenwright was that unless you had a marquee name on the bill, you couldn’t get the money together for something that otherwise seemed an exciting prospect. Opera was different: unless you’ve got one of a handful of star names, you sell tickets on the title or the composer, and I found that liberating.
‘At our best, Mike and I worked fabulously well together. Someone once wrote that we would be just as good running a supermarket or a swimming pool, and I took that as a compliment! We had a few ups and downs—how could we not?—but he’s still one of my closest friends and we will always have this terrific past in common.
‘Kensington and Chelsea were brilliant, and it still astounds me that a Conservative local authority made such a generous contribution to the arts—they gave us a budget every year of £300,000 to £400,000 and let us get on with it. They saw us as a service provided to the borough and if we came in over budget they counted it in terms of cost rather than loss. But when the 2008 crash came and the need for cuts kicked in, we were vulnerable, with both sides of the political spectrum questioning the need for a local opera company. So in 2015 they sold us off with an endowment on good terms and we pay them only a peppercorn rent for our site, which we occupy from March to September. Now we are established as a charitable foundation with a board chaired by Charles Mackay, on target to break fully even by 2023.’
Which isn’t to say that it is ever easy, given the need to draw half of all income from the box office. ‘We have to budget for something like 95 per cent capacity—a very demanding target. Last year we sold out completely, but that’s partly because Covid restricted the number of seats we could offer. My principle is: what can I do for the money that I’ve got? I always keep in mind that if you go into the red, there’s always going to be someone’s money at stake—whether it’s the taxpayer’s, or Bill Kenwright’s. Too often in this business large sums get written off because there’s been extravagance somewhere along the line.’
Clutton is also determined that Opera Holland Park will follow good employment practice and provide optimum working conditions. ‘My promise to anyone who signs up with us is this: you aren’t going to make a load of money here, but we will do all we can to minimise your domestic problems and ensure that you enjoy being with us. You will get paid on time, you will get paid for rehearsals and the scheduling is done well in advance rather than the day before, so childcare can be reliably organised. We also have a family room. This is in our interests: our best ambassadors will be the artists who go out and tell others in the business that OHP is a nice place to work.’ A measure of Clutton’s sincerity is the remarkable loyalty of performers and staff.
Key to this is maintaining a slimline organisation, flexible and adaptable, that isn’t hampered by unnecessary backroom administration (the permanent staff numbers only 19, some of them part-time). The resulting light-footedness meant that a swiftly improvised response to the Covid crisis could be made: six concerts and an unforgettable performance of A Little Night Music were presented over the summer of 2020, at a time when other opera companies were still paralysed. ‘Just letting our audiences know we were still there was such a psychological boost. And last summer, albeit with reduced seating, we managed 84 performances of La traviata, Figaro, L’amico Fritz, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Pirates of Penzance, as well as giving space to other outfits such as British Youth Opera and the Notting Hill Carnival.’
Looking ahead, Clutton hopes to raise enough money by 2025 to replace the canopy currently covering the auditorium with something more acoustically satisfactory and sophisticated—‘We are at the design stage’. He is also rethinking the catering to feature more small organic and artisan suppliers—part of his policy of ‘making an evening at OHP something truly distinctive’.
Holland Park serves a community that houses some of the richest people in Britain—hedge-fund managers, Russian oligarchs—as well as the deprived and ethnically various population of North Kensington. The problems and opportunities this extreme demographic presents are challenges that Clutton relishes, in terms of both raising money and meeting needs. Wealthy neighbours must be courted, befriended and welcomed; those who can’t afford tickets can take advantage of a free ticket scheme, and the company was a pioneer in relaxed performances with its hugely popular children’s opera Alice in Wonderland. North Kensington was devastated by the Grenfell Tower disaster—a tragedy that touched OHP directly when one of its front-of-house staff was discovered to be among its victims. Alongside many other supportive initiatives, Clutton organised a gala performance of Verdi’s Requiem to raise funds for those left homeless. The area also has close associations with Ukraine (the neighbourhood contains the country’s embassy, its cultural institute and a statue to Kyiv’s patron saint Volodymyr) and Clutton is currently exploring ways of helping the war effort and refugees. The company’s outreach programme earned one of the coveted International Opera Awards in 2018.
This summer’s line-up includes Eugene Onegin, Carmen, a double bill of Delius’s Margot la Rouge and Puccini’s Le villi, and the first British performance of Mark Adamo’s adaptation of Little Women, as well as an HMS Pinafore co-produced with John Savournin’s Charles Court Opera. Casts include Anush Hovhannisyan and Samuel Dale Johnson in Onegin and Anne Sophie Duprels, a great OHP favourite, doubling up in the Delius and Puccini. Familiar faces such as the conductor Sian Edwards, the designer takis and the director Martin Lloyd-Evans return, but younger talents such as the director Ella Marchment are also featured.
It’s a clever mix, and a bold one too, as Clutton knows audiences may initially be nervous of the unknown waters of the double bill and Little Women. ‘I find it discouraging that people don’t want to see things that they don’t know. It’s very hard when you feel you’ve created some of the greatest work and you have to fight to persuade people to come and see it.’ Yet he’s sticking to his guns with the premiere of Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton’s Itch, based on the novel by Simon Mayo, slated for next year.
Although Clutton shares Mike Volpe’s enthusiasm for the wilder shores of the verismo school—OHP’s productions of such rarely heard shockers as Iris, L’amore dei tre re and Francesca da Rimini have thrilled connoisseurs—he admits that they consume an inordinate amount of resources and effort. ‘When we did Gioelli della Madonna we had 66 in the orchestra and something like 100 on stage. We can’t really do things on that scale again, at least for the moment. Besides, there are very few singers around who can master those scores. Heavyweight tenors are in particularly short supply, and we suffer because so much operatic activity in Britain occurs in the summer that we’re always up against everyone else in a fight to book the talent.’
Asked to single out OHP at its best, he comes up with a week in 2015 when both Il trittico and Flight opened to a slew of five-star reviews; Natalya Romaniw and David Butt Philip hitting the heights in Iolanta in 2019—‘We gave Natalya one of her first big breaks and David was in our chorus, so that made it even more of a pleasure’; and Katya Kabanová and Jenůfa directed by Olivia Fuchs, both with Duprels in the title roles. But—and this is the measure of James Clutton—‘I’m there every night, I care equally about every performance. And every show means a lot to me.’
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