Meet the cast and creative teams behind Opera Holland Park’s 2022 Season. Over the coming weeks, we’ll introduce our singers, directors, conductors and crews at the heart of the productions this summer.
Inspire is Opera Holland Park's outreach and education programme. Created in 2010 in recognition of our social responsibility to our community, the programme focuses on creating accessible routes into opera, providing exciting first experiences for those who are new to the art form, and to unlocking memories for those who may not have been for a while. The team visits a wide range of communities, and our ultimate goal is to offer a space of creation and discovery for all.
Today, we meet three singers who have been involved with Inspire in a variety of ways; Sarah Minns, Alistair Sutherland and Sarah Parkin. They tell us about the joy of working on Inspire projects, the role of community work in their careers, and the excitement of introducing new people to opera.
Could you tell us about an Inspire project you were involved with?
Sarah M: Over the many years of working with the Inspire team there have been some truly incredible moments. One of my favourite projects was working with a day centre in Hammersmith for people living with dementia. This was particularly special as we were able to work with participants over a number of weeks, which built strong bonds between us. Together we planned what the content would look like for the following week, so we were always able to give them everything they needed. I cried when that project ended, we were all so close. Other hugely impactful moments included a lady who hadn’t communicated with her family and carers for weeks. She was wheeled into our session on her bed and slowly she came out of a sleep-like state and started to sing along. The family could not believe it. It allowed her to communicate again and to be more awake and aware. Working with people in hospice settings is also incredibly rewarding. Using music to have discussions about life and, crucially, end of life, is very special.
Alistair: I have been lucky enough to work with OHP Inspire for a number of years and it’s tough to single out one project over all the others. The Pirates of Penzance Intergenerational project captured everything that is needed from a community project; it was remarkable to bring school children and dementia service centre users together and share in a fun and emotionally rewarding activity. The immediate sense of wellbeing generated from music-making was palpable.
Sarah P: One of my favourite projects was an interactive concert as part of OperaUNITY with Fiona Williams that was run alongside the regular summer season. Fiona had devised a storyline based on a trip to find a secret garden, peppered with creative activities, imagination and some of my favourite pieces of classical music. We got to do the programme several times for different age groups, as well as a more sensory-based version for SEN children, and it underlined for me how easy it is to make classical music accessible.
What do you enjoy about working with Inspire?
Sarah M: Witnessing the power of music is humbling and life affirming. I know how much music means to me but to see it in others – people of all ages and all circumstances, at the start of life with babies and tots, in healthy times in communities, in difficult times at hospitals, for homeless people, for refugees, right the way through to end of life care in hospices – is incredible. Time and time again I am humbled by how music can bring people together and communicate far more than words. The human relationship with music should never be underestimated.
Alistair: Inspire is such a broad programme. I love having such a wide variety of performance opportunities as much as I love returning to a certain venue and catching up with everyone over a cup of tea. The connections you get to make in a music workshop or relaxed performance are quite special.
Sarah P: The emotional connections you can make through music are indescribable. The audiences are always open and engaged; and our interactions are so special and often hilarious! Of course, my singing and pianist colleagues make it easy as well — I always leave an Inspire session uplifted and upbeat, due in large part to the other musicians being incredible to work with.
What role does community work play in your musical career?
Sarah M: Community work is hugely important to me and my career. After every single Inspire session you leave with a renewed sense of “your reason why”. Don’t get me wrong, I love performing to 1000s of people on stage with lights and a costume. But the reason I became an opera singer was to communicate. Community work allows you to communicate at such a personal and immediate level. You can be playful with the choices of music that you perform and it can help you to be a better singer as you have to make quick performance decisions and learn to be flexible in every way. I leave Inspire sessions with a full heart ready to keep pursuing the job that I love with even greater energy.
Alistair: I regularly work in community music ventures. I think it’s a really important tool to bring people together in a shared activity which has an additional emotional benefit. We still don’t really know why music has the effect on us that it does, but regularly seeing how effective it is for both social interaction and personal wellbeing, I know we would really miss it if these projects didn’t happen.
Sarah P: Community and outreach work play a huge part in my musical career because it is where the audience give me permission to play, be creative in my programming, and to have fun. I work a lot with children, and their curiosity and involvement in a project informs how I evolve as a teacher. With older audiences, I’m always trying to bring an aria or song that will reach people, and figure out how I can best communicate while I’m performing. No matter what, there’s a supportive audience for you if you want to try out something new, and it keeps me on my toes!
If somebody is thinking about coming to watch their first opera this season, what advice would you give them?
Sarah M: Do not be intimidated. Not everyone who watches or works in opera comes from privileged backgrounds. Opera can be enjoyed by everyone. I like to have a quick google of the story of an opera that I do not know before I go: it means that I can sit back and relax and just appreciate all the sights and sounds without being worried about missing any details. Allow yourself to be transported to a different place by the music. I am always in awe of how an orchestra can make you feel like you are in a hot country, for example, or part of a storm just by the way the music is written, and how the human voice can make you feel sad one moment and happy the next. It really is a wonderful art form.
Alistair: Relax and have fun! Personally, I prefer not knowing what’s about to happen in the story the first-time round, so I would suggest reading as little about the show as possible and just enjoy the night out.
Sarah P: Excellent question! First, opera is for everyone, and the singers want you in the audience as much as you want to be there! Second, it’s always useful to read up on the plot just before you go but not necessary, as there will be surtitles. Finally, remember that magical things happen in opera — and yes, it is definitely worth singing about.
Where can we catch you this season?
Sarah M: I am delighted to be playing the role of Lili Béguin in Margot la Rouge by Delius as part of the 2022 Season. Watch out for her. She’s a bit of a baddie!
Alistair: I’m thrilled to be performing in Margot la Rouge and Le Villi alongside HMS Pinafore this summer. I can’t wait to be back!