Bridging the divide and opera’s Holy Grail

Blog piece by Michael Volpe, General Director of Investec Opera Holland Park

Originally published on volpeversion.blogspot.com

I’m not fully subscribed to the notion that opera has an age problem, inasmuch as I don’t find loyal audiences in the autumn of their lives to be problematic. It isn’t rocket science to understand that any obsession with new audiences puts you at risk of marginalising the one you have, and in the process of trying to shape it to suit, the very authenticity of the art form you wish to convert new followers to. In opera, our focus is on young people and the New Generation. At this point, to save me wasting time on it, you may go off and Google the myriad reports, studies and initiatives that attempt to address the matter.

In essence, Investec Opera Holland Park has accommodated the desire we share with our peers to develop new youthful converts by giving away thousands of free tickets to young people, with work in schools and by providing a family show each summer but until the classical arts become ingrained as a compulsory subject in our primary and secondary schools, the paradigm shift we want won’t happen; we can engage digitally, on their terms, with as many millions of young people as we like, but the message will largely fall on barren ground.

The problem is not opera. And nor is it the age of the existing or potential audience. As our film ‘From Footy to Verdi’ showed, those in middle-age, across our country – who I think are the most glittering prize – have sailed through their youth without having even considered live theatrical arts as a possibility, less so the classical version. The weakness in our nation is more about the breadth (or lack of it) of the potential cultural experiences people believe are ‘for them’, and it doesn’t matter if it’s opera, theatre, literature et al. The primary barrier for all of these arts sectors is not age but the enormous number of people within the population who continue to grow up with narrow cultural boundaries. This audience is numbered in its tens of millions and age per se should not be our concern. People who attack opera point to the middle class make-up of its audience but that is hardly surprising if the schools those people attended featured the classical arts heavily.

It is true to say that lifelong passions and aspiration often develop powerfully in our teens, or even younger, but what do I mean by aspiration? Well I mean the ability of an individual, growing up in a working class environment to believe in their own ability or potential to explore and enjoy experiences and opportunities in the big wide world, and not only cultural ones. When Gareth Malone made his very first choir programme with working class kids in the Midlands, the miracle of the project was not that he got loads of them to sing Italian classical music at a tournament in China, but that their having done so demonstrated to them that they really could stride out into realms they had never considered possible. They might never sing another note in their lives, but perhaps they COULD believe enough in themselves to be a lawyer, a doctor or whatever seemed unachievable before.

I have spent a couple of years working with young people at Archbishop Tenison’s, an inner city school in south London, and our most commonly held conversations focus on this depth of self-belief. We really delve into it and it is remarkable how their desire to preserve control over their destinies, not to fail in any way, often leads them to prescribe restricted ambitions for themselves. The bravado and cockiness of many such teenagers frequently masks great self-doubt. When, however, they begin to look back at themselves honestly, the transformations can be startling. Recently, several of the group have made their applications to universities and in many cases have had unconditional offers on very good courses at excellent universities. Almost all of them had expressed doubt – even cynicism – that they stood much of a chance.

This time I have spent with these young people has led us to the verge of a new film project along the lines of our previous production, ‘From Footy to Verdi’. Eight of these young people will take a journey with us into the world of opera and if truth be told, opera is merely a tool to help them experience things they would, a few short months ago, have consider other-worldly. In the process, they might develop a love for the art-form but in reality, we aim to show that what we in the opera world need to address – and play our part in – is a shift in the belief of our population that nothing is set in stone for them. This needs to be a systemic cure and opera, like every other art form or cultural sector will be the long term beneficiary. Opera is OUR weapon of choice, but the effects of the experiences we will give them, and which our film will hopefully capture, are the key determining factors for the future health of our industry. Yes, our task really is that big as a nation. We can’t just obsess about our bit of the arts world; we have to involve ourselves deeply in the massive issue of social, educational and cultural aspiration.

Our intention with this new film is not just to tell the world how fabulous we are at OHP (everybody already knows this!) but to lend the project a wider remit, to address altogether more ambitious aims. It is an easier consideration to spend time in the light, informal, bosky surroundings of Opera Holland Park. We want the challenge to be far greater, as it was for Harry the Greek and Rob in ‘From Footy to Verdi’, because the results are more profound. When they do come to OHP, our students will get to see the contrast for themselves. The film will follow a familiar format; we will meet them and then take them to the Royal Opera House to meet artists and eventually to see a full production of Tosca. Later, they will visit OHP, too, but we want their first experience to be at a place that for many represents the pinnacle of the operatic world and whose reputation is that much more grandiose than that of our own.

In our trailer for the film, it is interesting to note the lack of prejudice towards the art form that we often see from older more supposedly informed arts commentators and if I had a pound for every time an arts officer or teacher has said to us that opera is “not for” these types of young people, my fundraising life would be easier. Sure, the students may have an idea about what opera is, but they’re not hostile and the politicisation of cultural difference hasn’t yet infected their thinking or dulled their excitement about the journey ahead.

The film will be out in February or March.