La Rondine - Investec Opera Holland Park

04 May 2018

An Out of the Ordinary Opera

Robert Thicknesse | Opera writer

Opera critic Robert Thicknesse examines the people and partnerships that make Investec Opera Holland Park unusual and exceptional

There’s opera – and there’s Opera Holland Park

England’s contribution to global operatic culture has been pretty small since the days of Handel in the 18th century, but a combination of cosy rolling landscape, temperate summers and a taste for mixing culture with copious amounts of food and alcohol has allowed the southern quadrant of the country to create a very particular way of enjoying music at places like Glyndebourne, Garsington and Iford.


And here. Holland Park – the boskiest of London’s green places, and wild enough for local author P.D. James to hide a body in the undergrowth for some time – is a very particular rus in urbe (sometimes even equipped with marauding pigs or cattle), the surrounding gardened villas doing that English urban thing of pretending they are really in Hampshire.


Here you have country life without the terrible privations of actually going to the country. Likewise, Investec Opera Holland Park combines all the good things about Glyndebourne and its cousins with few of the drawbacks.


I first came to the opera here some time in the 1990s, when the theatre, run even back then by Michael Volpe (current General Director), was a receiving house for what we might fondly call a ‘mixed bag’ of productions. By 2000, when James Clutton arrived as producer, the company was producing all of its shows in-house, and a genuine, quirky, Out of the Ordinary identity was beginning to emerge.


And at first to a remarkable degree this reflected Mike’s character and tastes: a bit rough round the edges, but with a heart of gold, up for a bit of banter and a party, and with a distinct preference for the full-on qualities of melodrama and extreme emotion of the late 19th-century Italian repertoire over the more restrained beauties of Mozart and co. which you might get at Glyndebourne.


‘For journalists like me as much as for audiences, James and Mike provided relief from the pretentions of the usual run of opera-world grandees.’

James’s arrival was a vital part of the jigsaw. He brought the kind of practical know-how from his days working with impresario Bill Kenwright that meant the company could begin to put on a larger number of shows with confidence, cast them and stage them and not forever be doing things by the seat of the pants.


With his charm, drive, organisation and persuasive skills, James forged a company where people wanted to come and work – a big advantage in those early days when money was short and the opera’s unusual status as part of Kensington and Chelsea council meant that its budgets and planning had to be done year-to-year, not several years ahead as is the norm.


James and Mike formed an instant bond and, for journalists like me as much as for audiences, provided relief from the pretentions of the usual run of opera-world grandees. 


These two cheeky, chirpy Londoners, thankfully, had never learned to talk the self-serving nonsense of artspeak: they said what they thought, they had a genuine belief in what they were doing, they often winged it and happily admitted same, they had no time for chippy accusations of elitism, and while they were delighted to overturn prejudices by encouraging into the theatre people who thought opera probably wasn’t for them, they certainly weren’t going to force it down anyone’s throats or tell them it was good for them.


‘Who could take seriously a company that sold seats for only £40, in a sector where £150 is usual?’


And at first the opera world responded as you’d expect, with patronising condescension. Holland Park was cheerful but shoddy, they said: and who could take seriously a company that sold seats for only £40, in a sector where £150 is usual? Surely the place had no vision, no ambition, it was just a few larrikins having a laugh in the park.


Investec joined as the headline sponsor in 2011 and the Zebras are now as familiar sight at the theatre as the park peacocks are. Their support, financial and other, has allowed Holland Park to grow and develop and become increasingly professional, while never having that feeling of being ‘just a bit corporate’.


Investec has become partners, more than sponsors, with staff members taking part on stage and forming a staff choir (I gioielli della Madonna, 2013) and the company often visits their offices to perform – a truly extraordinary site to behold.


‘Investec’s support has allowed Holland Park to grow, develop and become increasingly professional’

Even now the tickets are still cheap, by the standards of summer opera, but nobody’s sneering now. Very few management teams stay in place for as long as Mike and James have done at Holland Park, and many of the people who work with them have been here nearly as long.


Uniquely in the country, Investec Opera Holland Park remains itself, and its strengths have changed the rest of the British opera landscape too. The company’s record of hiring young singers, for example, may have started as an exercise in cost management, but it quickly became an end in itself, and resulted in the greatest nurturing of young talent in the country.


The company’s great discovery, and still the prima donna assoluta of Holland Park, Anne Sophie Duprels, first sang here in 2001 – her UK debut – and she has been followed by a queue of kids who became stars, and got their first break here: Anna Patalong, Nicky Spence, Leonardo Capalbo, Amanda Echalaz, Natalya Romaniw, Matthew Kofi Waldren and more.


‘Uniquely in the country, Investec Opera Holland Park remains itself, and its strengths have changed the rest of the British opera landscape too.’

James and Mike created a company unlike any other – and that family feeling extends beyond the stage and backstage to front of house and the audience, who absolutely feel part of a jolly, open-to-all club more than anywhere I know.


Investec Opera Holland Park has re-established its preferred repertoire at the heart of British opera life – now everyone wants to perform the bloody mayhem of Italian verismo. But best of all, they have kept Holland Park as it always was: a place for those who love opera but can live very happily without the snobbery and pretentions that usually surround it.

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