In early 2017, I was asked to go and speak to the sixth form of Archbishop Tenison’s school in the Oval, south London about my book ‘Noisy at the wrong times’, in which I tell the story of my own school, Woolverstone Hall, and its role in lifting me, psychologically at least, out of the inner city. The chair of governors had read it and felt my experience and background might chime with the students. Facing a room full of clearly unimpressed 17 and 18 year olds turned out to be more daunting than standing on a stage speaking to a thousand patrons; writ large on what felt like every face was the question ‘why are we listening to a bloke who works for an opera company?’ I don’t think one student looked at me as I began to speak, and they did what I would have done at their age, showing their suspicion and doubt by looking at the ceiling or at each other. It was only when I got to the part about my brother’s death and my own myriad misdemeanours that they began to turn their attention to me. And then the questions began, and they started to be curious about the link between my life in the classical arts and the world, not dissimilar to theirs, from which I emerged.
I began to visit the school more frequently to take mentoring sessions with several members of the sixth form. In those meetings, which were never instructional or hierarchical, we talked about ambition, self-belief, perceptions, and how they should view themselves, as well as how the world views them, and frequently the conversation would distil into a discourse on a simple premise; nothing is set in stone when it comes to social and cultural possibilities. Furthermore, I said, I could prove it, and our ‘Hip Hop to Opera’ film (a title eventually chosen by the students) was born.
Opera was our tool of choice
The premise was a simple one; I believed that I could take them to the opera and that they were likely to enjoy it. As you might expect, opera is about as alien to them as any cultural genre could be, and at our first recruiting session when we hoped to sign up participants there was great reluctance, but eventually eight students from our mentoring group decided to participate. We decided to use all eight, and I am immensely pleased that we did. From the outset I made it clear that what this film hoped to show was not that they would all convert to opera and classical music – or even that such an outcome was necessary or desirable – but that it would demonstrate that they had the capacity to challenge their own view of themselves in ways they had never imagined possible. Opera was really just a side issue, our tool of choice. Yet even with that aim, I never imagined how profoundly the project would affect me, the students, and their teachers.
The characters in our film are enormously varied personalities, and all of them have their own issues, histories, and backgrounds that both challenge and support them. Like many teenagers they are often cocky and brash, but often give glimpses into their insecurities, self-doubt, and a frustration that sometimes life has been stacked against them.
In at the deep end
From the start – and similar to our ‘Footy to Verdi’ film – we decided that we wanted to put our subjects straight in at the deep end, so we would give them their first experience in a place that represents the pinnacle of opera in the UK, somewhere one might imagine they would feel least at home; a performance of Tosca at the Royal Opera House. Opera Holland Park will come later, and this film isn’t as much about us as it is about our art form and the issues I reference above. The film speaks for itself and I think waypoints are crystal clear, but above all, the short, intense journey that these young people took gives us all food for thought, both as a cultural sector as well as a society. We often look suspiciously at young, working class people, and consequently set extremely limited aspirations for them. We do this partly as a protective shield, thinking in proscriptive ways about what is possible or likely to succeed for them. The truth is that cultural exploration isn’t about a teenager from the inner city becoming an opera buff, or that opera or theatre per se ‘improves’ him or her as an individual (although it will enrich them). It is time, I believe, to focus not on developing audiences in a one-dimensional way, but that we should focus on social and personal aspiration by using our extraordinary art forms as demonstrations of the capacity people have to look beyond their immediate horizons. You might consider that the necessity of using art to prove such a point suggests something has gone wrong in the first place, but we have to work with the situation we have. If you look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves.
I’ve been a little taken aback by some reaction to the concept. I am asked why ‘Hip Hop’ is used in the title, as though we are using it as a euphemism for the colour of the majority of our participants. Hip Hop is the cultural reference point for all of them; they chose the title for the film. This is not a film about black teenagers. ‘Hip Hop to Opera’ is a film about young people from inner city, working class backgrounds challenging society’s perceptions of them, about promise and aspiration, of achieving against the odds. Above all, for me, I am struck most profoundly by the compassion and empathy within a group of people for whom society can show little of either.
Any film like ours should at least achieve one aim, which is to change the viewer’s initial opinion of its subjects, and I hope and believe we have succeeded in that much at least. It took great courage for some of this group to open up, to put themselves in the spotlight and answer searching questions they probably didn’t expect. Some of what they say I find deeply affecting, and they reveal facts about their lives that show they have a self-awareness. Above all, though, they show immense maturity to acknowledge that in three short days of filming, they have begun to see the world and themselves through different eyes.