Michael Volpe is the founder and director of Opera Holland Park. Here he talks about his vision for the company, his fascinating documentary Hip Hop to Opera, in which he introduces inner-city schoolchildren to opera for the first time, and his passion for making opera accessible to all.
Opera Holland Park believes that everyone should have access to theatre and music; what inspired you to set up the company?
It was a long time ago in 1996 when I first proposed it. It was partly financial, to ensure we got the best quality for our money (we had been buying in productions up to then) but there was a core principle that the company would focus on emergent British or British-based talent and to a large extent that remains a key part of our ethos. I also felt eager to introduce the sort of repertoire – late Italian – that we have become famous for and nobody else was doing that really.
In Hip Hop to Opera you introduce opera for the first time to teenagers from an inner-city school; where did the idea for the film come from?
I had been working as a mentor at the school for a good 18 months previously I think, so as part of one discussion I was having with the group about spreading wings and extending horizons, I sort of bet them I could show them the possibilities in a way they would least expect. It really came from there. My book about my school days, Noisy at the Wrong Times, tells how my school did just that with almost everything it did, so I suppose this was also a living, breathing demonstration of that, too.
Will there be a follow-up?
The group will be coming to the first night of the Opera Holland Park season and we will likely make a very short film of that event, where they will see La Traviata (The Fallen Woman, Verdi, 1853). We are also discussing other ideas and ways in which to extend the project.
Will you be attending any hip hop gigs?
Ha ha! Oddly enough, my first love in music is soul, jazz and funk, as well as being a big fan of the broken-beats/dance scene that emerged from west London, so hip hop really isn’t a mystery to me. My son is forging a successful career in RnB and is a talented singer and songwriter. I also make music of my own and as you saw in the film, Mayowa thought I was trying to kid him on when I said I liked African music. I later sent him an African-tinged track I had written myself and he thought I had sent him something by an African artist. I was very pleased with that!
Were you surprised at how strongly and positively the teenagers reacted to Tosca?
Yes and no. I didn’t expect them all to react so powerfully, but I also felt Tosca (Puccini, 1900) was a piece they would appreciate because of the intensity of its central trio of protagonists. Young people tend to approach things at face value and if anything was going to engage them on a personal level, it was the moral uncertainties of three very fiercely drawn characters.
Opera Holland Park runs the Young Artists Scheme to encourage young people into opera; have you got any other schemes to encourage younger and more diverse audiences?
We have had a free tickets scheme for young people between the ages of 7 and 18 for many years, as well as an equivalent scheme for older audiences. We also have a schools matinee this year and thousands of £20 tickets. Alongside that we go into many schools and work with kids; for the Grenfell memorial concert we are putting together a large choir featuring many local children. But as the film points out, I think we need to go further back and really address the way in which young people from all backgrounds view the world of culture and the opportunities it presents. If we use our artform to develop young people as individuals, then I think ultimately, we will reap the rewards indirectly.
Opera has something of a reputation for being for older, wealthier audiences; why do you think this is?
Hmm. I think we are a bit lazy in our thinking on this. Yes, audiences for opera and classical music are in large part professional or middle class. On a basic level this is mainly because they went to schools that exposed them to it, among other things. I often think that those who point to this demographic of the audience believe that these people are there for reasons other than that they just love the art form.
I would also point out that this group of people are those who introduce family members, to opera as well as give us money and support schemes to make opera accessible. Opera lovers can be very evangelical about it. At the moment we are in a vicious circle because kids from working class backgrounds are simply not exposed to the classical arts in anything like a sufficient way. Until we do that as a matter of course – compulsorily – nothing will ever change.
However, I must make the point that the majority of the opera audience isn’t wealthy or ‘posh’ or even ‘middle class’. This is absolutely crucial and the media must stop perpetuating the narrative that it is the preserve of Lord and Lady So and Such.
And what can be done to change it?
You don’t have the space! As I say above I think every child in every school from the age of five should spend – as a core part of the curriculum – at least one hour a week listening to music, reading plays, watching performances and so on. Right across the cultural spectrum and including opera and classical music. Stop messing about with ‘enrichment’ periods. Sit them down and make them listen to it and talk about it as they would maths or science – normalise it.
Then we need to involve ourselves – as an industry – not in just proselytising about our own artform or theatre or company, but participating actively in a wholesale effort to change the way young working class people in particular see themselves and their place in the world. Be part of the process of exposing them to environments and experiences they simply don’t consider; lend our artforms in a socially responsible way to those trying to shape young people and build their aspirations. Do that across society for the next 10 years and we will see magical results for our theatres, museums and the cultural sector as a whole. We all have to do it collectively and the government needs to facilitate it.
Many people feel like opera is ‘not for them’; what do you think would make a good introduction to opera to help them overcome this?
Just go. Go and sit in a theatre and see what you make of it. Jettison the bollocks you may have heard and follow the example of these eight inner-city kids who spend their lives listening to grime.
Opera Holland Park’s 2018 season kicks off in May; to which productions are you most looking forward?
I think there are two that spring to mind: Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), because it is our first Strauss and has a wonderful cast. And of course, Isabeau (1911) by Mascagni, because that sort of madness is what gets me interested!
What piece of advice would you give anyone wanting to work in opera?
There are scores of careers and specialities to be pursued in the world of theatre and opera – on and off stage. I suppose I would say follow your passions, work hard at developing whatever talent it is that you possess and always, always be professional.
Oh, and ignore the bullshit!
Michael Volpe is General Director of Opera Holland Park; he founded the company in 1996.