Read OHP General Director Michael Volpe's farewell to Opera Holland Park below as he gives thanks to the wide range of people he's worked with over the years.
Retirement is a word I thought little about until recently. But with one thing and another, it is here. And I am happy it is – for one thing or another.
Thirty-one years is a long time, as a simple matter of fact. Imagine being in jail for thirty-one years. Or, heaven forfend, being married for thirty-one years (I have now been married for nearly that long but I refreshed things halfway through).
My point is, a job is different. A job doesn’t – or at least hasn’t in my case – felt like three decades.
I’m not only astonished that it has been that long, but also that I have not given anybody cause to pitch me out onto the street at any point during that time. There were one or two through the years who tried, but they didn’t reckon with the Neapolitan background, and all of them ended up walking (or being escorted) out of the building before me.
You see, when you come from my background, when you present as I do, it is very easy indeed to have the very worst thought of you. It still happens to this day in all truth, but I had a mother who taught me that you only have two things really, when all is said and done: your dignity and your integrity. With those intact and solid, nobody can touch you, and we like to think the company acts in that way too.
The number of people to acknowledge is beyond listing here. Inevitably, I think of Mick Goggin, whose role in the establishment of opera on the Holland Park Theatre site has never been fully acknowledged. It was he with whom I began the journey, and from him I learned a great deal. I inevitably taught it all back to him, thinking he’d never notice. But Mick will always have my admiration and friendship. When we built the new theatre in 2007, we asked him back out of retirement and for several years he was again Front of House manager. There was a real sense of sharing our growth and success with him, and allowing him to see what had become of the project he first began.
I think also of the first companies who performed here. Some were questionable, but all played their part in establishing the art form in the park, and many very good singers can today recall performing in some of those shows. I remember Joseph Vandernoot who conducted (for Opera Lirica) at glacial pace and was as irascible as a rhino with piles. But he loved the late Italian rarities too and was responsible for bringing many to the UK. I learned so much from him.
It is vital that I personally acknowledge the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. I am reminded of people from the early days, like Lady Hanham as leader, then Merrick Cockell, and wise councillors like Richard Walker-Arnott. These were people from the other side of the tracks from me for sure, and there was some alarm as I presumed to take care of their primary festival. But they had the grace and decency to allow me my head.
I shall always cherish my relationships with the vast numbers of talented singers and musicians. There is an immeasurable pleasure from being around such people and watching and hearing them work. The members of the press with whom I have become friends over the years have offered support, criticism and wise counsel at times, too. The relationship between the critical fraternity and the arts should always be this way.
There are the company people I have known over the decades and from whose development I take enormous pride and pleasure. These were usually young people at the start of their careers, impossibly inexperienced sometimes, but who quickly grew into fantastic professionals, showing immense commitment and affection for the company and responding magnificently to the confidence we showed in them. OHP’s success really is built on people like that. I am pleased that with several I am still the closest of friends. They have stamped their credentials into the company’s hide as firmly as any of us. The present team has faced immense, unprecedented challenges recently and have come through with grit and determination and I am very proud of them, too.
James doesn’t like me praising or thanking him. So I won’t.
No seriously. James came for an interview twenty odd years ago and we talked about nothing but football. Despite being a Spurs fan, he was in. For twenty-odd years, we have forged our path, a path less ordinary for sure, and we had to cut down quite a lot of undergrowth to get to where we wanted to go. The rest, as they say, is history.
James often refers to us as a married couple because we may argue and fight but still love each other at the end of it. We actually disagree on very little and we often instinctively want to do the same things – and I don’t mean just drink and party. I mean in our toughest, most challenging times – when our response has been the right one because we never needed to spend more than a few minutes deciding on the best course of action. I think ours was a partnership unique in the arts and I am proud of that.
The mention of difficult times inevitably brings me to things that have punctuated my time at OHP and which are forever merged with the company in my memory. I have written about this more than once but I cannot express enough the profundity of this reality. The deaths of family members drench my recollections of productions, but then again, I felt some comfort from there being this entity to immerse myself in.
The one thing that is indelibly imprinted on all of us is Grenfell. With hindsight, I wonder how I was ever able to tell the front of house team, a few evenings after the fire, that Debbie Lamprell was lost. I cannot fathom how I got through our small, private memorial service with Debbie’s mother in attendance when the company sang Will Todd’s Amazing Grace. I know James feels the same about that afternoon too, how the sense of grief and atmosphere was crushing. I just don’t know how we managed it. But we did, and we went on to show the depths of this company’s goodness, integrity and dignity in the following year or so.
Over three years after Grenfell, our responsibility remains and will continue as we look after Debbie’s mother and help her through – that is now the permanent responsibility of all of us associated with this place. We are a lighthouse in her storm. The extent of Grenfell’s reach is demonstrated by how many of our lives have been affected by it. Since it happened, I have experienced things I would never wish on anybody, moments and processes that frankly, at times have been unspeakable, but never as unspeakably difficult as they have been for Miriam. If anything proves that art is more than mere frippery, it is the way in which Grenfell has drawn upon it.
It is important to thank Charles Mackay, the Chair of Trustees who, when we became a private charity, took on the challenge and has, ever since, driven us along with great dedication and commitment. His long years of experience have been invaluable and his address book hasn’t been too shabby either! Thank you Charles for fulfilling the role in such a critical phase of the company’s life. I would also add my thanks to all of the Trustees who have given their dedication and time to serving the company over the past five years, too. Along with Charles, they are a safe set of hands to guide OHP through the next year or two of uncertainty.
Above all, I would like to thank our patrons who have stayed with us and watched us grow as a company. Their support, large and small, has been invaluable, their dedication humbling, and their watchful eye has kept us true to our founding principles. OHP is nothing without you.
And so, the time has come for me to metaphorically whittle wood in that beautiful little shed on a Caribbean beach that I always talk about. I will miss this place, all of the staff, the talent, the donors and patrons. I’ll miss the fun and the excitement of a season. I won’t miss the anxiety, the doubts, the weather. But all are part of OHP’s fabric. My children have told me that my leaving OHP feels like a great loss to them as well, because they have known it since their births.
I am happy with my lot and what I have done, and will always wish the company well. It isn’t mine, it belongs to everybody. I’ll come back and check the cocktail standards in the Ensemble of course. But you’ll not really miss me. And that is OK, because as the old Chinese proverb says, put your hand into a bucket of water, then take it out and see the hole you leave.
Thank you for everything.