There are many worse ways to spend an hour online than talking about opera with Paul Gilluley and Tim Hardy over a glass of wine. Together for twenty-seven years, and married for the last fourteen, they talk in a brisk, companionable relay, moving seamlessly from laughter to seriousness and back. Opera is something they discovered together, walking down St Martin’s Lane in the late 1990s, when they noticed a special offer for side slip tickets at the Coliseum and saw Nicholas Hytner’s production of The Magic Flute. Until then, Paul says, “We went to the West End. We’d seen every leading lady in Sunset Boulevard. We’d seen every musical you could imagine.”

A chance decision to try something new led to a new passion. From Mozart to Wagner, Adès to Britten, Weinberg to Verdi, Puccini and verismo rarities, Paul and Tim are the most perceptive, supportive and engaged listeners a creative team could want. If they don’t enjoy a work or a production the first time, they will return and try again, even when that work is as austere and demanding as Parsifal. As Tim says, “They have to grow on you, these things. You have to have an ear for it. I really believe that.”

Introduced to Opera Holland Park by Richard and Ginny Salter, they became Members, then Envoys, and are committed advocates of the company and its work. “It’s two things for me,” says Paul of being an Envoy. “Number one is bringing more people into opera. Every year we buy four tickets for each production and make sure we bring at least two friends along. Some of them are friends we’ve brought regularly. Others are people who’ve never seen opera before. Secondly, it’s to support the company, because I think the company is really important. I think it makes opera accessible to lots of people in lots of ways, and to support that is an important investment. I have two Twitter feeds, and I try to keep my work separate, but I think I have a duty to promote Opera Holland Park there as well.”

Tim works in construction and interior decoration. Paul is a consultant forensic psychiatrist. “My training background is working with the criminally insane, which is why I like opera so much,” he quips. He is now Chief Medical Officer of the East London NHS Foundation Trust, which covers mental health, community health and primary healthcare, GP surgeries and clinics in East London and Bedfordshire. “Walking the streets of Mile End is quite different from walking the streets of Holland Park,” he says. “You see huge differences but I think you still see a lot of humanity as well. In opera there are lots of opportunities for bringing people together. We’ve seen it hugely in the response to Grenfell, which is only within spitting distance of the park.”

Tim describes himself as “one of the few boy volunteers” at OHP, and was persuaded to join the team by the late Sara Turnbull. “She was always on the stairs when we arrived. She’d say, Why aren’t you a volunteer? Why aren’t you joining us? I said, Well, I’m still working. I’m not retired yet! She said, It doesn’t matter, come for one evening, two evenings. And I just got roped in.”

“If you get that feeling of feeling part of a family it becomes intoxicating”, says Paul, “In Holland Park it feels very much like that.” “I really look forward to working,” says Tim, “I say, guys, I’ve got to go. I come home, have a bath, go up there. I love selling programmes, going round to all tables, talking to people about their picnics. If I had a glass of wine every time I’d been offered one, I’d never make my way out of there! We have a competition. How many programmes are you going to sell tonight, girl? You go one way, I’ll go the other.”

Neither of them studied music but when they started going to opera, Tim was pleasantly surprised that he knew a lot of the arias. “My parents, when I was really young, had a big wind up gramophone. I’ve still got them upstairs, all these old 78s of classical music and opera. That’s what I was playing as a little kid. So that was my introduction. I know the sound.” Paul grew up in a working class family in Glasgow, and was one of the first of his family to go to university. “I knew classical music a bit as a child and I heard it a bit but not in a typical way. Opera was not something I was introduced to. My mother always wanted to go to the ballet so when I went to medical school, they did student discount tickets and I used to buy two and sneak my mother in. And she’s tiny. She’s only five foot. Bless. My mother was a healthcare assistant in a hospital and my father was a joiner, and they go along to the ballet now together.”

Opera is a provocative art form. Does Paul’s clinical experience inform the way he responds to it? “I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t. Because my clinical experience is part of me. It contributes to my person, my being. And if I wasn’t to take that in with me, I’d be missing a huge part. We were looking through old programmes tonight, and just thinking about The Turn of the Screw that was done at Holland Park, and I’m so glad Britten was done,” he says. “Every one of Britten’s operas is so psychologically charged. The Turn of the Screw is the pièce de résistance and the interesting thing is that the production will determine where the madness is put. Sometimes the madness is put in the Governess, sometimes it’s in the boy, Milo, but the whole thing that runs through Britten’s work is about innocence being not just destroyed but almost desecrated.”

When Stuart Skelton was singing the title role in Peter Grimes at the Coliseum, Paul used the opera as a teaching tool and took a group of trainee psychiatrists to see it. “We did the same with The Turn of the Screw,” he says, “Then my consultant colleagues started saying, we hear you’re taking the trainees to see opera. I said, Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because I think it’s a really good teaching theme. They said, But why are you not taking us? I said, Because you can buy your own bloody tickets! Go your bloody selves! What shocks me is that people don’t! When you organise it, when you take a party of twenty, have drinks in this or that room, they’ll pay anything. But they find it really difficult to go out there and book something themselves.”

“But that’s the thing of trying to bring people in,” says Tim. “You have to just get past going through the doors. A lot of it can seem elitist but Holland Park really isn’t. It is beautiful and it’s lush with the gardens and the pavings, but once you’re in there, everyone who works there is really down to earth.” “It’s funny,” says Paul, “We mentioned the geographical separation between the East End and Holland Park. But you don’t feel it going to opera there. You would expect to feel an accentuated sense of entitlement. In fact, it’s just the opposite.” “I think that’s down to Mike and James though,” says Tim. “Well, the culture of the organisation,” says Paul.

We turn to personal highlights over the last ten years at OHP. “Can I tell you my favourite? The Così fan tutte in 2012 with Elizabeth Llewellyn and Julia Riley,” says Paul. “We took one of my best friends and he’d never been to an opera before, and he sat there…” says Tim. “And he said afterwards, for that one moment, I listened to those two women singing and I thought, this is what it’s all about. It was that realisation of the beauty of their voices and the music and the whole thing,” continues Paul, “It’s not just one of my favourite moments at Opera Holland Park. It’s one of my favourite moments ever. It just sits in my head the whole time.” “We came another night and it started to rain on that tensile roof”, says Tim, “And it’s raining harder and harder, and Liz is singing louder and louder. I’ve never seen anyone get a standing ovation at the end of their aria but she actually beat the rain on the roof! It was marvellous!”

Another favourite memory is Anne Sophie Duprels’s performance in Madama Butterfly. “When she died, I was crying. I can still feel it now. It was so underplayed. Knife across the throat and drop!” says Tim. “Anne Sophie for me characterises Opera Holland Park,” adds Paul, “I thought Iris was the most harrowing and difficult but most moving thing I have seen in opera. Butterfly is very beautiful. It’s very romantic. But you think, she’s a fifteen year old child! This guy has abused her! Iris played the whole part and played it so well. That third act when she dies, the beauty of the music is phenomenal. It was one of the biggest rollercoasters. A lot of people found it too difficult to take but sometimes you have to be provocative. I love when people wait to the end and then boo. The fact that they’ve waited till the end, they’ve actually been provoked in some way. Even if it’s not the feeling they want, they have still been provoked into feeling like that.”

For Paul, the first eight weeks of the Covid crisis were a period of tremendous pressure.” We had to get the mental health units emptied because of the risk of Covid in any hospital unit. We had to build the teams to manage mental health in the community when you couldn’t have face to face contact. We also had community teams pulling all of the people out of the Royal London, Newham Hospital and Bedford Hospital so they had the capacity to manage the surge we were expecting. So it was a whole strategic thing that was mad from mid-March to mid-May. You come out of it and you’re still in lockdown and you have nothing to look forward to”, he says. “The opera for us is much more than opera. It’s a social event. It’s seeing people. It’s catching up with Mike and James.”

He and Tim have been following Natalya Romaniw’s career since her debut as Mariella in I gioelli della Madonna at Holland Park. The last live performance they saw was her Cio-Cio San at the Coliseum. How have they been coping with the lack of opera this summer? They pull faces. “We did watch some things online. It just didn’t have it”, says Tim. “I know some people go to the cinema and watch opera. I’ve never been. I have friends who go and they love it. I think to myself, nah.” Tim is thrilled that Rodula Gaitanou’s production of La traviata – “the best I’ve ever seen” – is being revived in 2021, and Paul is delighted that OHP will be producing The Cunning Little Vixen for the first time. A few weeks ago they cycled to Holland Park with some friends, “just to see the space”. Now, with the announcement of the 25 July concert, they can look forward to returning to Opera Holland Park, and Opera Holland Park can look forward to welcoming them back.

Anna Picard is Opera Holland Park’s Research and Repertoire consultant. She has written for The Times and Times Literary Supplement, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio Three’s Record Review programme.