Have you ever been to the opera? Neither have I. Set in the idyllic surroundings of Holland Park, Kensington, Opera Holland Park is an annual summer event which has packed 40 main stage performances of six operas into 58 days between 7 June and 3 August 2012. An opera may not sound like everybody’s cup of tea, but producer James Clutton believes it’s a question of finding the right number of sugar cubes, if that’s the problem, not throwing it down the sink: “For every young person, it’s the same bit of advice: give it a few goes. If you had a bad meal you wouldn’t say you didn’t like the type of food it was. Culturally, one bad experience of opera doesn’t mean that you don’t like this art form. It’s about telling a story, which can easily be connected to a soap opera, for example, to give it popular appeal. Girl meets a boy, falls in love; very basic things like that but with fantastic music.”
What makes this opera event unique is his approach, which is very much grass roots led. His initiatives include free tickets and, this year, a new, innovative one that gives budding singers a chance to step on to the stage for one night only. The Christine Collins Young Artist Schemes enables a cast of young singers on the brink of their professional careers to replace the whole cast of Gianni Schicchi (with the exception of the main man Alan Opie).
Clutton explains: “The idea is to give these young singers a meaningful opportunity. They are able to have proper rehearsals, coaches and apprenticeships, and I thought, let’s give this a chance. Here’s an opportunity that they didn’t have before, it’s about really wanting to make an impact. Christine Collins has been brilliant; she saw that the talented people needed an outlet and sponsored it.” Clutton and manager Michael Volpe’s passion for fostering young talent is clear when I speak to one of their singers, 13 year old Niall Windass. He began working for Opera Holland Park last year in Fantastic Mr Fox. “To date my favourite performance was probably Fantastic Mr. Fox; I don’t think I’ve actually read the book. I think a long time ago I started reading it but when it got to the part where the fox’s tail was shot off, I closed the book,” he confesses. His age belies considerable experience. “I was in the Southend Boys’ Choir in 2006, and in 2010 a group of us got the chance to be in an opera. Then there was an audition in 2011, and two of us were asked to go along, and I was in Fantastic Mr Fox.” Windass has also won music awards for his singing, most recently he received a Centenary Solo for his age group at Southend Music Festival.
Still a schoolboy, Windass tells me how supportive everyone is at the theatre and at King John School, Essex. “I’ve seen more of the producer than anyone else on the team. At every single performance, James is there to watch it and to say thank you at the end. Opera Holland Park has been really supportive, kind and helpful and generally pleasant. My teachers are also very supportive.”
Our interview is interrupted by Windass’s new puppy, Bertie, who is excitedly jumping about. When Bertie has been taken downstairs, Windass summarises why he enjoys performing at the theatre: “Opera Holland Park is a good experience, I enjoy it very much. We get to meet a lot of people. It is set at the heart of the nicest park I’ve ever been to. In the summer, when it’s a really hot day, people are having picnics and kicking footballs around. It’s such a nice place and the sun shows off in it… it’s like heaven.”
Opera Holland Park is run by the local council and employs Folpe and Clutton to run it. The theatre sells 98% of its seats, whilst priding itself on producing an array of operas. One of its performances this year is a one-act opera, Zanetto, by Pietro Mascagni, which has not been seen in London for 100 years. If you aren’t persuaded yet, then Clutton’s free and discounted tickets are sure to point you in the right direction for an evening’s entertainment. “Companies charge so much for gigs like One Direction. Our initiative comes from Michael’s experience of football and theatre, to keep ticket prices low. Our ‘INSPIRE sponsor a ticket’ is paid for by an audience member.” Friends and patrons are able to donate an amount which will turn more full priced seats into £12 INSPIRE seats.
So, why not grab a picnic basket and trying something a bit different this summer? I’ve got my eyes on the Fantastic Mr Fox performance; all I need to do now is buy some scotch eggs and make a nice sandwich…
Opera Holland Park’s 2012 season can be found here: http://www.operahollandpark.com/. Niall Windass will be appearing in Gianni Schicchi this summer and will also be in the 2012 production of Fantastic Mr Fox.
Image credit: Niall Windass in Fantastic Mr Fox by Alex Brenner