Memories are made of this

Mark Valencia’s interview with James Clutton

Running a summer opera festival – it’s the lotus-eater’s dream job. Eight civilised weeks glad-handing punters who’ve come to enjoy great music in enchanting surroundings, then a 10-month snooze. Why then, when we meet for coffee, does Opera Holland Park’s Producer, James Clutton, look so frazzled?

Because, it turns out, there’s more to his job than that… The OHP team is small but its reach is ambitious – this, after all, is London’s third opera house – and the business of hatching each year’s festival is a gruelling logistical undertaking. So it can’t be boredom that drives James to shoehorn the Inspire project (an umbrella title for the company’s probono work) into his over-stuffed schedule.

“The idea for Inspire started with two relatively minor things,” he explains. “I wanted to give my 93-year-old nan a chance to see one of our operas but she said it would be too difficult for her. All right, I said, we’ll bring it to you – and in a small way we did. It was that simple. Then in 2006 I saw a poster on the tube (for Contact the Elderly) that read ‘Can you take Harry and Sally to Sunday tea?’ It made me think: perhaps we could do something like that and bring opera into elderly people’s lives.

“The first thing we did was take the soprano Amanda Echalaz to sing at an old people’s home. Imagine that, knowing where Amanda is now! This year she’s sung Tosca at Covent Garden and next January she’ll be Butterfly at the Met… Anyway, we went in with just a couple of numbers because we weren’t sure how it would work. Afterwards an old lady of 90 said to us: ‘I thought I’d hit rock bottom last week when they had us singing She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain. People think that because I’m old I can’t enjoy good music anymore. That’s the first piece of Mozart I’ve heard in 25 years.’ The whole team was so moved hearing this that we decided to do more.

“There are two dementia centres in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and we visit them both every year. Not having an education office, we’ve found out what works by trial and error. We get a couple of singers and go to places where there are 40 or 50 old people and we sing for them. Over six years we’ve built up some solid relationships.

“The singers sit with them and find out what particular pieces of music remind them of. That triggers memories – ‘No… oh yes! I do remember that!’ We all love it. But it’s become obvious to us that we’ve reached the limit of what we can achieve unaided. We need to move up a level.” James pauses for his first sip of coffee. “Which is where Nordoff Robbins comes in.”

Nordoff Robbins is the UK’s leading charitable provider of music therapy. They provide over 50,000 music therapy sessions each year to people who live each day with challenges such as dementia, autism, learning difficulties, depression, mental health problems, stroke, brain injury and life-threatening or terminal illnesses. Their philosophy is that everyone responds to music because it affects our minds, bodies and feelings, and their objective of bringing music into local communities chimes with OHP’s activities. “They’ve helped us with practical advice like being tactile and building in repetition. Hand gestures can help keep the brain active, so when we do the Toreador song (from Carmen) we get them moving.

“People assume there’s an ulterior motive,” he continues, “but it’s about using the tiny bit of influence we have for good. The other members of our team – Sarah Crabtree, Pollyanna Plumstead and Seth Richardson – have all bought into this enormously: they grab it, run with it and make it better.”

There is a nagging question: spare money isn’t exactly sloshing around, so why does James consider it’s his business to run Inspire?

“Because we can. And it costs us nothing. We’re in a position of great privilege doing a job we love and this is something we can do to make other people’s lives better. We may have a brilliant health service in this country but if there’s nothing to be healthy for, what’s the point?

“We’ll be running Nordoff Robbins collections on selected evenings during the season in order to raise cash and improve people’s awareness. Also, this year the Royal National Institute for the Blind is using Alice in Wonderland imagery so we’re linking our new family opera Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to their Mad Hatter’s Club; we’ll be taking collections for them during the 2013 season as well.”

Jo Carter, Director of Fundraising and Communications at Nordoff Robbins, is equally happy to have made the connection with OHP: “We are really delighted and very grateful to Opera Holland Park for choosing to support Nordoff Robbins. Our work revolves around the specialist use of music, and every day we work with some of the UK’s most vulnerable people, for whom music is often the only way they can engage with the world around them. Music has the ability to move and reach people like nothing else can and I cannot think of two more suitable organisations to work together.”

James agrees – and is looking forward to the synergy the two organisations will create. “Tens of thousands of visitors attend our operas every summer and most of them will know someone who would benefit from music therapy. There are so many different versions of it. Think how an opera moves you when you see it for three hours, then imagine how you’d feel if it was the only musical enrichment you’d had in six months or a year. It’s not a guilt-trip thing and we aren’t preaching; all we’re saying to our patrons is: ‘Look at this. If you want to give some money, here’s how you can’.

“I take opera to people because it’s what I know. The old lady stuck in a world of She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain made me think of that scene in The Shawshank Redemption where the hero plays ‘Che soave zeffiretto’ from Figaro through the prison tannoy. Me, I’m lucky that I live with music – it’s what I do – and it’s hard for me to imagine life without it. Not only opera; old pop songs do the same. I just have to hear it and I’m there, and that’s what we want for the people we visit. That lost memory at the back of the mind: if you press the right button you can unlock something precious.”

Mark Valencia writes on opera, music and theatre for Whatsonstage.com, Classicalsource.com and Sinfinimusic.com