Saturday, 16 November 2013

Ciao! Dougie

Yesterday, at Putney Vale Crematorium, we said goodbye to our friend, Douglas Ross Turnbull.
The sun was bright and piercing but the air was heavy as many of his friends and colleagues gathered to wave goodbye to the force of nature that was Douglas; a veritable cast and chorus of the many who have luxuriated in Dougie's backstage care regime.

The small chapel choked at the numbers waiting to be ushered in and when we were, many were left at the door with standing room only inside. A good house, as Doug would have said. For two weeks we had waited for the day to arrive and the finality of such an event re-opens the emotional gullies that we had begun to cover over. The silence as we watched the cortege pull up was broken only by choked back sobs and the throb of collective sadness. His mother, tiny and crumpled against her surviving son's shoulder followed Dougie's coffin in and there can be no more poignant sight than a mother at a funeral.

Will Todd's arrangement of Amazing Grace was sung beautifully by the congregation, accompanied by Will himself. Poor Will. His gorgeous arrangement has been performed at two funerals in the past few months but there was a joyfulness in its rendering, the descants dragging from deep within us non-singers an involuntary bolt of cathartic emotion. The wonder of music knows no correct occasion to weave its magic and Dougie would have so, so approved.

Clive, who was Douglas's partner for many years revealed so much that was unknown; how Dougie had been a medical student for a year, how he had played the flute, about his schooling. He imparted, with graceful dignity, the news that Dougie had called him a few weeks before his death to "say goodbye and make his peace". What we knew about Dougie was that he faced death - looked it square in the eye - for quite some time and this revelation came as no surprise, even as it liquified our hearts.

James stood to give a eulogy but it would be impossible to recall Dougie's life without laughter and so we laughed through the tears. It is beyond difficult to deliver to an audience a eulogy to a loved one; we expose ourselves in a way that is unfamiliar and in drawing a picture of the loved one, we reveal much of our own emotional heart. James showed how Dougie was adored in all his gracious, graceless, tactful, tactless larger than life glory and the pain that his passing has caused.

When Gweneth Anne Jeffers rose to sing Visi d'arte, the curtains around Dougie's casket began to close; it is a moment, if you have ever experienced it, that has an exquisite sorrow. "I have lived for art", sang Gwen and not a person in the room could think of a more appropriate 'addio' as Dougie danced, with top hat upon his head, into the glorious oblivion that he had always said was awaiting him.

We raised glasses to him at what was once the Colherne in Earl's Court. We had dramas and emotion, the evening became a traditional Opera Holland Park gathering and all that was missing was Douglas and his pithy contributions, his Agony Aunt role to soothe the angst or his mischief to cause it in the first place. He would have so, so approved.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

At the heart of the jewel

There is no doubting that we have had a wonderful week at Opera Holland Park. Three fantastic shows - one of them a world premiere - gems have been unearthed, stars have been born, the weather has held (until last night, but even then it seemed appropriately tempestuous) and a round of reviews that we would be shy to write ourselves have been emblazoned across the media. It could have been so different. It can always be so different.

But that is the gamble we take and believe me, whilst it might not seem like much of a flutter now as the plaudits flood in, making a decision to produce something like I gioielli della Madonna certainly feels like one at the time. So much can go wrong and it is credit, of course, to James that it has been so brilliantly produced. Think of all the elements that go into creating any opera, let alone one this big and unknown, and you will realise that even the smallest decisions can have a profound effect on the outcome. 

What is pleasing of course, is that the vast majority of critics and public have found the work to be of great substance. Not all though; one or two colleagues I have discussed it with have actually declared it variously "weird", "mental" and "shit" but all, to a man and woman, have been completely engrossed in it. Indeed, a bit of me thinks that Rupert Christiansen's Telegraph review, in which he declared that he thinks the music "dreadful" but nevertheless gave the show an unmitigated rave, is our greatest achievement! About the music he is as wrong as it is possible to be as far as I am concerned but I admire his submission to the visceral impact of the show, and for having the honesty to write so well of it.

The reactions of the audience are, as ever, the most rewarding; these are people who take the opportunity to hear something new, perhaps against their instinct, and come away richly rewarded.  At OHP we have had a long list of such events over the past 17 years but it never fails to please. Yes, we have faith in the rarer operas we present, yes we believe in and understand their potential effect once on stage. But we would be stupid to assume their magic can work unaided because it matters deeply how they are constructed, put together and peopled. They don't produce themselves and I Gioielli has been the toughest of them all.  It really has taken blood, sweat and tears and our applause for those at the heart of the endeavour should be as mighty as the Act 1 closing chorus.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

From the sublime to the sensational

It has been a week of stunning contrasts,  staggering music and pretty heroic endeavour from all concerned.  Any season demands a great deal from everybody at OHP; having now closed three operas we open another triumvirate of them but they are beyond "normal" by any real standard. With the glorious weather came the first of the three in L'elisir d'amore, with a dress rehearsal on Friday that was fizzing with humour and glamour. But that wasn't before a sitzprobe at Cadogan Hall on Thursday, followed by a full studio run the next morning, of I gioielli della Madonna, two events that felt like the first culmination of a long, hard road. And today, with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland tech rehearsing on the yucca lawn, the mighty forces of the gioielli orchestra assembled for the second sitzprobe, the oppressive heat not dulling their instincts. 

On Friday, at the run through, I had been poleaxed by the visceral nature of the production, the invention of the music, the talent of our principal cast. I shed a small tear when that exceptional artist Diana Montague sang her Act 1 duet with her stage son, Joel Montero; artistry, experience and a beautiful piece combined to simply hang my guts from the ceiling. And then there are the choruses, the deeply anxious music of Act 3, the deaths and the pain. I have decided, quite simply, that gioielli is no longer about whether people "like" it or not (although the music is glorious) but is more about the impact it will have on audiences; you simply will never forget it. It is tempting to go one by one through the cast and praise them but I will resist and say nothing, save for a reassurance that they are committed to their very cores to this production.

If gioielli represents the pinnacle of full-throated angst and turmoil writ large, then L'elisir is the balm we need. From a morning with Wolf-Ferrari's relentless tragedy to an evening of Donizetti's delicious optimism felt like an impossible chasm to leap. Yet the contrast only served to demonstrate the wondrous variety of this art form we love.

It has been a hell of a few days that threw a bit of new light onto why we put ourselves through it. The next week, with three openings, is going to be emotional, nerve-wracking and exciting. By now we are running on fumes, dragging ourselves over the finish line, our families relegated to snatched mornings over breakfast, but we seek our satisfaction vicariously, through our audience, and if their reaction is half as powerful as mine has been to the past few days, the rewards are glittering indeed..

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Well, what ARE we fighting for?

If the persistent talk of arts cuts has done anything, it has prompted a running discussion on what the arts and culture actually mean to this country.  It is hardly surprising that among professional politicians, the debate is generally split along political lines but even there, some have crossed the floor to argue that it is not as simple as slashing the budget for the arts and expecting the wider public to quietly acquiesce. The problem is that whenever we discuss budget cuts, we are offered one dimensional "either, or" scenarios; "I would rather money was spent on saving lives" or, from the arts side, "we spend billions on Trident". And so the public are easily manipulated. 

Governments - of any colour - are given to extreme consciousness when it comes to our physical and social health, telling us how to look after ourselves, demanding we stop doing things like smoking, trying to prevent young women from getting pregnant, ordering us to stop using our phones when driving or to get us to reduce our alcohol intake. There is no end of ways by which politicians will apparently concern themselves deeply with our well-being and if they have to, they will fine us into complying. What they do not seem to have a great deal of time for is our emotional, intellectual and cultural health, despite that almost the entire point of our existence as working, harassed and according to them, wantonly unhealthy, members of society is to enjoy life. I don't know about you but culture, in its many forms, is sort of what life is all about isn't it? Reading, watching TV and cinema, listening to music? What is it we do when not at the office? Where do we get our emotional experiences on a day to day basis?

For a country that is so drenched in cultural history, Britain can be a quite monstrously, grotesquely uncultured place, especially when the nastier elements of our 
politically active society demonstrate their viciously hateful antipathy towards the arts (unless it is entirely paid for at the door by the public who experience it). To them, far better to spend money on the really "necessary" things; of course, if not a single penny was ever spent by the public purse on the arts, the same people would no doubt be attacking other groups who receive money from the state for whatever purpose, but I digress. 

I work in an industry that receives a large portion of the ACE budget. I wouldn't necessarily agree that is fair but the problem with this particular argument is that opera is so ridiculously stereotyped and caricatured in the UK that the debate is almost impossible to have without some idiot saying "it is for the rich, let them pay for it!".  I have written before that it is the rich who do often pay for it; ask all those development managers working for opera and theatre companies around the UK who they squeeze until the pips squeak?

But culture is, I am pleased to report, something that large numbers of the British do value. Our problem is that a great swathe of our nation is not terribly well exposed to arts and culture and so, as a consequence of historically half-arsed educationalist thinking, the arts suffer from being perceived as something enjoyed only by a certain class of Londoner for whom the anti-culturalists reserve especially vituperative hostility and so politicians are kidded into thinking they are only upsetting a minority. From the other side, those championing the socially and economically challenged within society look at the same issue with a different slant and often they stand accused - certainly by me - of robbing young people of the opportunity to explore. They tell them "that is not for you". I am as allergic to them as I am the flathead pseudo-economists.

In Kensington and Chelsea, the council carry out regular surveys of a group of people known as the Residents Panel. There are several hundred of these people, carefully selected to reflect the social and economic profile of the borough and the participants are asked to comment on various aspects of council services, to offer opinions on major topics and issues. They recently took part in a survey on culture and their answers were hugely encouraging. 

Asked to agree or otherwise with the statement "Arts and culture in London are an important part of my life", 86% said they Strongly Agreed or Agreed. Only 1% said they disagreed. They continued in that vein for several similar related statements. And then the final section stated, "I believe that arts and culture should be encouraged and supported by the council" - 54% Strongly Agreed, 35% Agreed and only 3% Strongly Disagreed or Disagreed. That is 89% of people who believe their council should support culture. What the survey doesn't offer, naturally, is a caveat that suggests that if the council DOES support the arts, they won't do something else "more important", which is precisely where the flatheads will get exquisitely cross. 

As it happens, the council has made it quite clear that arts and culture in Kensington and Chelsea are not the icing on the cake, but a big part of the cake itself. It was of course delightful to note that 58% of people in the borough visit Opera Holland Park but that is blowing our own trumpet a bit too hard. RBKC supports arts right across the spectrum; it ended up with a successful opera company yet they also support Nour Festival, a fantastic celebration of middle eastern culture, InTransit, Leighton House and Linley Sambourne House and of course Carnival. That is a first class portfolio of municipal arts. Councils up and down the country try to do similar but many also find culture to be the first and easiest thing to relinquish, thus leaving their communities impoverished in more ways than one.

I recently gave two speeches to corporate guests at OHP. Both events were for companies who put in money to support the festival, to try to help progress the work and to contribute to the costs and pay for the thousands of free and cheap tickets we distribute every season. Both speeches turned into something of an eulogy to the vitality and importance of the arts and to the absolutely critical need for them to continue to support culture in the UK through sponsorships and donations. In both rooms, my audience were wealthy, successful people, all of whom could afford to pay for whatever they fancied doing or seeing in a theatre and indeed do so. But each and every one of them nodded vigorously in agreement, applauded the principal of publicly supported arts and the access to it we should afford the whole of society. My guests had put their money where their mouth is because they know, from their own experience, that life is just so much better when infused with wondrous music, bewitching words or gorgeous pictures. 

If RBKC do decide, one day, to end their support of Opera Holland Park, we shall all move on and do something else because, after all we are just officers providing a service the council currently wishes to pay for. It is also worth mentioning that OHP generates an estimated £2 million per season in additional visitor spend and provides hundreds of jobs. But, you see, were WE to be offered a choice between saving the life of an old person or opera, it would be hard to argue it wouldn't it?  But our community - London - will be worse off for us having been given that Hobson's Choice. And it begs the question; what kind of a world do we want all of these healthy, non drinking, non-smoking, very old people to be living in? 

As Churchill allegedly said to his finance minister who was urging him to cut funding for the arts to pay for munitions during WWll, "Well, then what are we fighting for?" I don't even care if the quote is authentic because it's a bloody great sentiment regardless.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

For goodness sake, shut up Alfie!

About a year ago I was contacted by a newspaper to ask my opinion on an Alfie Boe interview in which the tenor had bemoaned the snobbery of the opera world and told how it had driven him from the industry. I suspect I was asked because the journalist knew that I am an example of someone who couldn't be further from Boe's caricature. My response was a sigh and a childishly fruity alliteration. I had to do a double take when I read an interview this week in The Telegraph, which said pretty much the same thing again. This time a "class system" had emerged in the world of opera (but Prince Charles is a mate) and Alfie was on tour, not selling a record; rock and roll and some nice neapolitan songs await the knicker-chucking hordes, apparently.

As you might expect, Twitter and Facebook lit up with the anger and indignation of opera professionals exasperated at the dual jeopardy of Boe's boring mantra and the media's lazy accommodation of it. What irks them is easy to fathom; Boe was given a fantastic opportunity to develop a career, he had talent, but now he is fully signed up to the stereotype that maintains the almost ludicrous assertion that opera is a world of Oxbridge snobs who only care about a singer's social provenance. And worse, he does it to sell records or tickets.

To be fair to Boe, there is every likelihood that he is asked these questions unbid and merely answers with a nudge and a wink to his PR, knowing it will get attention. I don't suppose he really gives a fig about the opera business and merely continues to be soaked by whatever self justification he bathed himself in when he got the hell outta opera-dodge.

I don't know Alfie personally but I know plenty who do and not everybody has good things to say about him. But given these people and their backgrounds, I also know that Alfie is aware of how very few people in the business emerge from privileged backgrounds. However, and my moderation continues to favour Alfie, his ire seems to be directed at those in management or the general establishment of the art form. So is he right?

No. Of course he isn't right. In fact, he couldn't be more wrong. If he said the business is liberally dotted with tossers, he would be right. If he said there are some people who acquire careers without the attendant talent (hugely more prevalent in the realm of directing and conducting, I would venture) he would be right. If he said that opera singers, even the most lavishly talented, can be narcissistic pains in the arse, he would be right because he himself has such tendencies. If he made a hundred observations of one sort or another he would probably hit the mark in half of them. But the one thing he is utterly wrong about is a "class system" among singers (beyond 'rubbish', 'good' 'excellent' that is). And whilst audiences for opera can sometimes fit the caricature, even these people concern themselves only with the sound that emits from a singer's mouth; a sound that even in the most shaky Italian masks a northern brogue. They couldn't care less where Alfie grew up and how many oil filters he changed.

One of the most delightful aspects of my job is the relationship it gives me with individuals who would, in all honesty, choose to cross the street from me in other circumstances. That annoys some people but I find it triumphantly satisfying and it shows that the shared passion for the art form transcends social hierarchy in a way that we like to broadcast through our development work. Of course society has a social order and class system but in opera, where talent and the glory of music is paramount, nobody gives a shit. This is even true of houses and festivals where wealth and status are most lavishly displayed in the auditorium.

As far as I can tell, Alfie probably found the discipline and effort required for the operatic repertoire too irksome. He can't be arsed with it, which is not to say he doesn't work hard at what he does now, but he probably feels more at home with the screaming, unbridled adoration of young women and housewives (who wouldn't?!) He needs to shut up because he is protesting too much.

Alfie clearly has no affection for opera and perhaps he had doubts about his potential for the kind of success he craved. He is in a unique position to encourage audiences to explore it because he had a decent shot at it when ENO and the ROH were giving him opportunities. But if he doesn't feel compelled to speak on its behalf, to offer insights that may help the wider public to try it, then he should just say nothing. And he should certainly not abuse and denigrate those who, like him, have ordinary backgrounds. It is crass, rude, and intensely self-regarding. And worse, it shows him up to be the thing that he claims people dislike so much. Ironic, huh?

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Just a dream

What I am about to impart to you is absolutely true. I really DID have a dream last night that featured Antonio Pappano and a full audience at the ROH. And I did have a stand up row with the maestro from the floor of the auditorium which migrated onto the stage. 
And it was one of those dreams that, when you awake, takes a few moments to be acknowledged as a figment of your sleeping brain.

It also had a complete narrative, it didn't just appear in the middle of another dream; it began, had a middle, an end and there was nothing either side of it. And given recent debates it was perhaps an entirely predictable dream to experience. It went a lot like this....

The lights dimmed in the house, there was a fanfare and the curtains opened to reveal a large, bright staircase with gaudy bulbs along each step; I half expected Bruce Forsyth to appear at the top of it. But he didn't; amid a bright pink wash, the spotlight picked out Tony Pappano, hands raised, a roar of approval from the crowd, his arms raised in the air triumphantly. A big band played. Alongside Tony was another individual who I didn't recognise and who became insignificant and irrelevant.  Tony marched to the front of the stage with cheers, music and applause ringing in his ears. From my front row seat I noticed that in one hand he held a pad of yellow Post-it notes and in the other a pencil. He was wearing a green velvet jacket.

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen!"
A roar in return.

"Tonight I am here, on stage to talk to you about opera. More importantly I am here to get ideas from YOU about what we do to make it more popular!"
More cheers, more applause (I promise, this is exactly how it went. The dream is emblazoned on my memory).

"Every idea you give me I will write on these stickers and they will be placed on the wall in my office. You will shout the ideas, I will write them down. It is that simple".

By now I was already bristling so I didn't wait for him to finish. I stood up.

"Tony, is this bloody serious?" I barked.

Tony noticed me and, leaning forward from the stage, offered calming hand and a fixed smile.

"We all know what you think Michael", he said "but lets give other people a chance to speak."

"What is your top price ticket Tony? Come on, what is it?"

The house had fallen deathly silent but I looked around at them anyway, seeking approval for the question. There was none.

"It isn't just about price is it?" he replied. Tony was still smiling, looking a little sheepish. He looked alarmed when I strode up the indecently handy set of steps in front of me (this was a dream after all). 

"Come on Mike".

"Don't worry Tony, I just want to speak to you. I won't punch you. No it isn't just price. What about repertoire?" 

Things started to get a little surreal here. I told him that he should be doing more Mozart and asked why he had never done Cilea's  L'arlesiana or Giordano's Siberia

"You are not welcoming to people here," I continued.  "You stop people at the door who don't look posh. You don't even give them a refund when you turn them away". 
My grandstanding raised not even a murmur from the house.

"That's not true. We do give them a refund!" he replied.
Tony was still smiling and I complimented him on it. He laughed.

"And what about you slagging off all the singers for being ill? How is that making opera more accessible?"  Dreams often conflate issues. Wrongly.

Tony dropped the smile at this point. I wouldn't say he looked angry but his face was stern. 
"Ha! That's why we are doing this tonight! Bloody singers dropped out and we had to get something on stage!" Huge cheer from the house.

I scoffed at him. "No it isn't!"

"Yes it is! Three of them. All together. And they phoned me from the pub!" 
Huge boo from the house. He was smiling again. 

"You haven't written a single thing down on your stickers Tony. You call that consultation? Not a single word have you scribbled down".

And then the music started again and we both walked off together, up the staircase, through a curtain at the top. When there, he thanked me.

"Great show!" he said. Still smiling. 

James, my producer colleague, was waiting. 

"You tart"' he said.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Sick Singers

Antonio Papanno unleashed a tsunami of frowning and growling when he bemoaned the "weakness" of modern singers recently. Many observers cheered him too; if you pay a couple of hundred quid and the star doesn't turn up it is no surprise that you would give Tony a clap. Oddly, on such occasions when the lonely walk to centre-stage by a member of the management, just before curtain up, signals something is wrong, there is often a chance that you will be party to a significant career moment as the cover steps up to the plate and steals the show.

As expected, the debate has become polarised; a good old ding dong on the Guardian website between Christopher Gillet and Peter Conrad is a perfect demonstration of how the issue divides people. The truth, as ever, is in the middle somewhere. In 24 years, I have seen both the capricious, neurotic narcissist panicking after a sneeze as well as - the more frequent - stoical, risk taking heroics of sopranos with broken feet, tenors with suppurating, inflamed throats and others with recently delivered and grave news swirling through their minds. Those to whom Pappano refers probably fell into some or all of the above categories but he has had some very public and profoundly awkward experiences recently and his frustration is understandable.

What is absolutely certain is that opera houses have a responsibility to their employees and in the vast majority of cases, we have absolutely no concerns that a singer is swinging the lead, aware as we are of the intricacies of the problem, the gravity of their condition. And we also understand the extent of their exposure when out on that stage, performing the most physically, mentally and emotionally demanding of all performance art. No disappointed audience member, for all our regret, is worth risking the health of a singer.

The real problem with Pappano's comments is not necessarily that he made them but the reaction to them by people who ought to know better. Accusations of blame fly hither and thither; it is the agents who make them sing roles they are unready for; it is the PR machine who forces them to endure unnecessary engagements when they should be resting; they are divas with pseudo-messianic complexes and so on. All of that may be a bit true, but it is yet another stereotype, propagated by the industry itself, that allows the public and anybody with malice aforethought to lazily trumpet "I told you so". Whip out the brush and slop on the tar.

I can't tell you how intensely dislikable some singers can be, but even then, there is - must be - an appreciation for what it is they do every night; it is also true to say that our critical fraternity can instil a fear that ads just enough of an added incentive not to go out there and risk a caning. But it isn't the critics' fault either. It is just simply that in 99% of cases, the singer is sick. If you or I get a cold we can sit at our desks, doped on Lemsip and trundle through our day's tasks unwatched, unnoticed, silently. That is a luxury not afforded a performer who must force their voice into spectacularly unnatural contortions, expending monumental amounts of energy in the process. We might expect them to gamely sing through it as many often do, but sometimes, they simply can't. If the weakness to which Pappano refers is perceived to be this refusal to battle on, then people have misunderstood him, because I cannot imagine he would want to risk the quality of a performance or the career of a singer. And a very real risk it is too. We still blanche at the memory of a tenor who chose not to make us aware of a throat condition but who nevertheless went on in one of the repertoire's most ferociously demanding roles. The shock and horror of watching the cataclysmic progress of his demise through the evening remains with us still. And he was destroyed by it.

The insistence that "star" performers should always fill the glamour roles should also become less habitual, with houses giving, instead, more opportunities to the talented performers that rarely get the chance. If Pappano's remarks are indicative of a general concern among international houses, then perhaps it is an opportunity to start changing the way they cast productions, relying less on the glamour and more on the talent, spreading the load, nourishing the future of the art, neutering the rampant expectations.