Opera Scotland

Michael Volpe of Opera Holland Park

Posted 8 Feb

Opera Holland Park (OHP), sometimes referred to as "London's third opera company", presents a summer festival in West London. Established under a canopy with performances sometimes supplemented by peacock cries and other extraneous noise, it has a very different 'feel' from most other operatic offerings.

Peter Fraser of OperaScotland interviewed Michael Volpe, general manager of Opera Holland Park, at the last Arts Marketing Symposium at Hertfordshire Business School.

Michael Volpe, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us at OperaScotland about Opera Holland Park. Perhaps you could start by saying a little bit about how you came to be involved?

Well, that was 25 years ago now. It's quite a long story. It was through the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, who owned what was known as the Holland Park Theatre. At the time I joined in 1990 it was the first season there. They got the big roof in, or rather the first roof and I was recruited from the hotel and travel industry... to promote and market the Festival, the libraries and museums, art galleries and all the rest of it...

­I could see very quickly that this theatre had a huge amount of potential.

We were bringing in guest opera companies. We were paying money to bring them in but they were of variable quality and by 1996, we said, look, we need to create our own producing company, or we need to stop complaining about not having the quality that we want. So they went with the producing company and by 2000 we were producing all of [the operas] ourselves. We weren't receiving any more companies, it was all us and that was kind of when I founded the company, when I became involved with Opera Holland Park.

You mentioned having a group of singers come back regularly.

I'd say we do, yes, Anne Sophie Duprels is doing two of the roles in Trittico, she's has been with us for years. Her big break was here when she did Traviata at Holland Park. But we do have a roster of singers often what you would term emergent singers so Opera Holland Park's quite well known for finding new talent, giving opportunities to emerging talent. We form a very important role for places like the Opera House and ENO - and the next level if you like in the league - of seeing singers do these incredibly challenging roles in a place that is maybe a bit smaller. We're not that small we have a thousand seats so we're not tiny. So we have that as an important role, but we do have lots of singers who will perform. You'd say they were company favourites - Anne Sophie Duprels, Olafur Sigurdarson - for a while it was Amanda Echalaz but then she became super Amanda. Now we have new ones, doing a couple of years or three years, so we do have a very family concept. James [Clutton], the producer, one of his great talents is really that building of that family, that sense of.... I think that's because of the energy of the company, we focus on the work. The singers know that, and that means an awful lot to the singers that that everyone in the company and not just James the producer but me and Julia who works in marketing, and Cassetti who's the operations manager, all really want it to work and be a success. A singer on the stage really needs to feel that from the management.

How'd you see the company developing over the next few years?

We have a very important time now. The other week we just... got a paper through cabinet which was signed. OHP becomes an independent charity from 1 October. We've spent a few years working this through and one of the clear things was that we didn't want annual grants. The council very much want us to succeed, so the next few years we will have our annual grant up front so we can then run the business.

We have a very good chair in Charles Mackay who has come from Historic Royal Palaces, so we've got a really good team for that and a lot of experience, a lot of great black books and things, but we will be - much of the same really. We don't want the customers to know any different. So we won't be doing anything radical for a few years, if at all. Repertory-wise we will still be pretty much in that same space.

We've done some things recently, which were real steps for us, the Flight which has been an immense success critically. These operas aren't big audience operas and we're a venue that's very much used to big audiences. One of our big aims is changing our financial model, so that we can do Flight that runs at 75% rather than 95% and we can do Turn of the Screw and we can do other things like we did recently which are brilliant critical successes, which are quite popular, not unpopular, but comparatively smaller in audience to an Aida, obviously. So we need to adjust our financial models... They are very good opportunities to promote singers to give young ensembles a go and this is what has been a great success about Flight this incredible ensemble of young mainly British singers.

How do you manage the casting?

James does the casting with directors. We don't have an artistic director at Holland Park effectively, there's a couple of kind of gauleiters, James and I who sit above it. We choose the repertoire and then teams are put together by James for each production, so we have a director, a designer and a conductor essentially, and between them - and James - they put the show to bed. Because we are looking for new talent and we don't have the big big big budgets, it's really exciting to see the company finding new singers, you know, are around and there's a little bit of a buzz about.

A good example this week is Flight with a singer called Jenny France who's been around, she is not brand new, but this has gone - vocally she's stratospheric. It's really fabulous to see that blossom – we knew she was good but she really is good, and the same with Kitty on the same stage and Ellie Laugharne in the same cast and really they're the future. If you like, of British opera and they've had this extraordinary experience of doing what is possibly one of the most critically acclaimed shows in London for years. I won't name names, but we've got very well-known critics coming two or three times to see the show. It's that good and Jonathan Dove, as a composer who is great to have around. You don't often get that chance to hang out with a guy who wrote it. I think it's a modern British classic now and it ought to be in the repertory of most large companies in this country and I say this in as a fan of overwrought Italian music. You can see all the influences but some of it is absolutely beautiful and it deserves... We are the first professional performance of Flight in London and it was written 18 years ago. That's nonsense.

That's the tough thing about new opera it is difficult to get established.

It is, and because the audience is extremely weird about contemporary opera in this country and I have to say I think there is a lot of not very good contemporary opera that puts people off. Somebody said recently, Schoenberg's got a lot to answer for. I think there's some great new operas been written and we've commissioned one in Alice in Wonderland, which is a family opera but enormously accessible. Jonathan managed to take all his clear influences - Stravinsky, Britten and Adams and even Puccini are in there and he's given it its own language and its own atmosphere and I think that that's important. We have to refresh opera, but I don't think will ever replace the fact that people when listen to Il Tabarro again and you hear that orchestration, you think you know these things then you hear them again live. You go, God, I didn't hear that before. That's why these things endure, of course, but it's so important that people with the talent of Jonathan get these opportunities. It's up to them to produce work that people want to hear, I think that's also true to say.

A lot of new composers - and I've dealt with a few over the years, not so much in opera as in other art forms, and these composers are so keen not to be called derivative. They do all sorts of odd things with their music that doesn't eventually appeal. I think what Jonathan did with Flight ...that I can see, and I've spoken to him about it... I think he was frightened of using his influences to create his own music. You reckon you say that's really quite Adams, or Glass or whoever it might be or Puccini, it doesn't matter because it's brilliantly conceived and done and it's a gorgeous melody. There's one part of it which I found almost transcendental the other night which was the end of the suitcase aria. That is a lovely aria by a Minsk woman, in which she's bemoaning the loss of youth and she's pregnant and touching touching touching... Then it becomes extraordinary and it reminds me really strongly of Górecki's third, but was no less valid for it. It was beautiful and I stood. I was chatting to someone - the show was on - and it just stopped the conversation dead – to listen to the ensemble come in. It was transcendentally beautiful- do people know this? They don't.

What was the first opera that turned you on to the art form?

When we were kids at school with that sort of bits and pieces and drama ... We did it, and I seem to remember doing an Aida chorus at school as part of a choir. But in terms of an opera when I went just went wow, it was probably Tosca actually way back... I think it was Tosca where I got that when I got that, Act II the way you are manipulated and have never had a problem with being manipulated... There's a special kind of genius about her getting making you cry against your bloody will, and that's what Puccini does. I think it was Tosca that did it for me first.

Thanks very much Michael! 

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