Sunday, 25 November 2012

From top to bottom, we should applaud them

We are all, in some way, self-regarding in the arts world. Those who tread a stage (particularly an opera stage) have to be self-absorbed in many respects for theirs is a job of monumental difficulty; it is to their inner core that they must turn in order to dredge up the emotions that audiences wish to see laid bare. And those of us who engage the performers and the directors and conductors who, through their vision and creative talent, give singers the means to project themselves into our collective psyche, are prone (perhaps not unreasonably) to bask in the warm glow they produce.

The reward given by an audience - their applause - is a fleeting but pungent one. I wonder if all singers appreciate the effect that their gifts can have; is there a greater privilege than to be the last sonic memory of a satisfied audience member as they drift off to sleep, weary but content from their evening's entertainment? I can never, even as I approach my 24th season at Holland Park, claim a reward as profound as that and the pleasure is - must be - drawn from its facilitation. That is not, I hasten to add, a derogation of that duty, for opera companies have in their service countless individuals whose contribution is as critical and as potent as the delivery of a role in the Puccini canon. It is just that whatever glittering prize we are offered, whatever we ourselves may wish to perceive of our part in the process, it will never quite deliver the adulation of those whose talent we press into our service. Quiet contentment should indeed be reward enough.

The arts industry is, especially today, awash with the cult of personality. Too often the focus is on the people "at the top", or the PR stunts that propel them onto a few thousand twitter feeds and by which an industry appears to now be judged. Social media has given all of us the chance to blow furiously into our trumpets; that performers should use the medium to further their profile is understandable but it doesn't stop there. The "controversies" urged by executives too frequently overshadow everybody whose talent is engaged and paid for. I have to confess that in my early days at Holland Park, before we created our own company, my job was to write cheques that the quality of our productions couldn't cash but now it seems that arts companies congratulate themselves most lavishly for the message rather than the work being produced. Whilst those who create the actual art retain a presence, the recognition rarely goes further. Beyond the performer there is the technician, the operative who creates a space for wonder to take flight, the fundraiser, or the hard worked marketer who juggles vainly to lend credibility to the schoolboy pranks that pass for a corporate message who are frequently overlooked and put into folders of less significant binding, to be placed on a shelf that sits beneath all else. In truth, those of us who don't expose ourselves to an audience's judgement should all sit alongside them; only the truly talented, whose spotlight we all too easily elbow our way into, should be placed in clearer sight.

We are all prone to this self grandeur once our own visionary zeal appears to be paying dividends. We all like to be praised and admired, to be shaken vigorously by the hand by an enthused audience member or of our achievements to have journalists wax lyrical. But our real challenge is no more than to keep explaining our vision, to ensure its sustainability and to provide the environment for talent to flourish. Every bus needs a driver for sure; in the arts world, clever, creative people need managing, but those who built the bus, maintain it and make it tick should always be valued highly too.

When I went on stage at the final performance of the 2012 season for our traditional thanksgiving ritual, it was Julia, my colleague, to whom I felt compelled to fling most praise. To the singers and members of the orchestra I of course made admiring reference and the audience had roared its approval only moments before my eulogy. But no matter how many weird and wonderful operas I pursue, strategies I write, money I squeeze from willing pockets or arguments I may have with critics or the unimpressed, the graft of people like Julia is the lifeblood of the company. So is that of our operations manager, our production staff, our front of house team, our Friends, our box office operatives and many others besides. We simply do not exist without them. Period.

In truth, we are all sheltered beneath the same creative bell jar, no matter what the job or status of an individual. If managers and leaders of arts companies don't recognise that, if we believe ourselves to be indispensable, to draw walls around ourselves or consign others to different bunkers, we will have nothing to feel smug about as the souls of our companies are reduced to empty, tattered shells. Far too many people working in the industry tell me - often tearfully - similar stories of rampant management megalomania, of trite, pretentious theories and withering insecurities and bullying dressed up as leadership. I blanche and wonder if I do the same things but it needs to stop. The arts need to return to those who create it, to those who make it work, who serve it and tip themselves headlong and unselfishly into making it happen because when the wolves come calling, as they invariably do from time to time, we shall have nobody willing to stand in their way. They will have all left to do something else. I feel entitled to feel pride in having been present at the birth of our company but the thousands of people who support us don't leave our theatre thinking of me but of those who have thrilled them, hosted them, served them drinks and encountered them through their experience from the moment they booked a ticket. It is easy to forget that when we are told how good we are, when those ebullient handshakes go on and on or but we do so at our peril.

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