Saturday, 17 May 2014

Twenty five years up

My memories of twenty-four seasons at this festival tend to muddle together; faces, names, dates and the meandering chronology blur into a confusing whole but the events on stage remain in the mind, most with crystal,luminous clarity and all waypoints in our journey, symbolising not only the brilliance of their creation but a moment of importance to our history. It is fair to say that not always was there a contemporaneous awareness that they should turn out to be so important, but without exception they were special.

For this article, I have remembered those that had a deep effect on me as an audience member and as such my first recollection is as a consumer, believing that if these productions could so profoundly register with me, their impact would almost certainly be replicated for our patrons. The list is in no particular order because even though I thought it might be possible to rank them from one to ten, no sooner had I done so, than the order would change again. So it is perhaps best to read this piece with the consideration that each is as unique and essential as the next.

Tosca 2008
At 7am on the morning after the first night of this Stephen Barlow production, set in 1968 Rome and the political tensions of that time, I received an email from a patron who said; "not only is this the worst production of Tosca I have ever seen, but it is the worst production of any opera I have ever seen". It was an inauspicious start to the day but reassurance soon followed as critical acclaim was poured upon this brilliant piece of work. Amanda Echalaz blazed as the heroine and the setting brought new meaning and enlightenment to the piece. Stephen Barlow's vision and subtle direction created, for the first time in my experience, a true and glowing confirmation of what Puccini really thought about the relationship between Tosca and Scarpia – Nicholas Garret as the police chief lent the idea credibility. We took it for a successful run to Richmond Theatre thereafter and it remains a definitive Tosca.

Iris (1997 & 1998)
Our first foray into the late Italian repertoire remains the most sumptuous production we ever produced thanks to the support and involvement of couturiers Charles and Patricia Lester. The fashion media flocked around alongside the music world, Liberty devoting their windows to the costumes. But Mascagni's monumentally scored and exquisitely beautiful blockbuster was no walk in the park and was only beaten for orchestral and choral forces by last season's I gioielli della Madonna. On the first night, the rain had fallen in torrents for the entire day and the oppressive heat turned London into an Indian monsoon. The battle to make the theatre safe was on but by 7pm, the rain stopped; the air was heavy, still and infused with magic. Iris was so popular that we revived it in the following season and it is impossible to forget the impact of the opening 'Hymn to the Sun'. Iris was a glorious event and a seminal moment in our development.

L'amore dei tre Re (2007)
Those of our patrons who have been around for a while have heard James and me discussing this work for a long time before it eventually appeared on stage (in the year when we opened our new theatre). At a performance of Iris in 1997, a visitor from New York recommended it and from that point on it was 'on the list'. If Tosca in 2008 launched Amanda Echalaz into the stratosphere, her performance as Fiora in this production was a powerful prelude. A sensational ninety-minute opera of power and eroticism, Martin Lloyd-Evans' show was a blend of stark, brutal design and poetic visual beauty. A tear stained my cheek at every performance of the Act 3 prologue, Martin's breathtaking funeral entrance of the chorus impossible to resist. And there is no more touching a duet than when Fiora's husband, aware of her coldness to him, knowing she doesn't love him, begs her to at least pretend that she does. On opening night, a gruff
Jake La Motta lookalike marched over to me and said in a broad Brooklyn accent that he had been 'waitin since nineteen fifty fokkin six, to see dis aapra again'. No pressure then, but his journey from New York wasn't wasted, his tears at the end said it all and so did his reappearance at every performance until the end. Montemezzi's masterpiece may well be my favourite opera of all: and my daughter is named Fiora.

The Queen of Spades (2006)
Martin Lloyd-Evans again brought visual poetry to Tchaikovsky's darkly psychological masterpiece, but it was the clutching of triumph from the jaws of disaster that also gives this production such a profoundly memorable status. Our Hermann, perhaps the most demanding tenor role of them all, collapsed vocally during the first performance, his voice bludgeoned by infection, his confidence blasted by the experience and he fled home to Europe. With just two days until the next performance, James's encounter with Valery Gergiev, in town with the Marrinsky, drew from the maestro's ranks a stand-in Russian tenor who, with but hours to prepare, produced a miracle of technique and sheer balls. As the performance that we had come close to cancelling drew to an end, accompanied by Tchaikovsky's crushingly moving hymn and with the chorus gently slipping to the ground in a shimmering blue light, we were all exhausted. The roar from the crowd is yet to be surpassed.

Iolanta (2008)
The amazing Orla Boylan, who had excelled in The Queen of Spades, took the lead again with the brilliant Annilese Miskimmon in the director's chair. As an opera it starts slowly as we meet our princess and those who entrap her. But from then onwards Tchaikovsky delivers tune after tune. Orla Boylan and the tenor Peter Auty created a storm of intense passion every night during their duet, a scene that I insisted on watching every time; a magical production.

Kát'a Kabanová (2009) & Jenufa (2007)
Our two forays into Janacek territory remain among the finest productions ever given by OHP. Both operas were directed by Olivia Fuchs, conducted by Stuart Stratford and starred Anne Sophie Duprels. The darkness of the repertoire, shot through with wondrous lyricism became impossible to forget. These productions stuck in the mind with searing imagery, perhaps best personified by the scene between Tom Randle and Anne Sophie in Kát'a when he walks with her into the water. These two productions represented genuinely great opera.

Fidelio (2003)
Olivia Fuchs again and an opera we were wary of to begin with. Stark and modern, this production came as Guantanamo had just begun to enter our cultural reference: as the prisoners were revealed – in silence – the shock of the imagery audibly shot through those watching. Yvonne Howard and Alan Oke were superb and this was perhaps our earliest great success.

Norma (2004)
Our first Bellini and not a rousing success as a production but I include it for two very simple reasons; Nellie Miricioiu in the title role and Diana Montague as Adalgisa, artists at the top of their game and a true revelation to us at the time of what the future could hold. I will leave it to the review by The Times to describe what I mean:
"Miricioiu – this was singing of supernatural delicacy and craft, and she has a presence of such understated dignity and grace it is impossible to take your eyes off her. Her duets with Montague's Adalgisa, half an hour of pure emotion in sound straddling the interval, were just miraculous: these voices pirouetting as gracefully as ice dancers somewhere in the musical ether. Montague conceded nothing in quality, giving a profoundly moving performance of vast vocal accomplishment and concentrated feeling. This was hypnotic, heart-stopping musical beauty."

I gioielli della Madonna (2013)
A huge, controversial and ultimately thrilling opera that had all of London talking and which without question tested the company to a degree never before experienced. Martin Lloyd-Evans and conductor Peter Robinson were again entrusted to bring one of our rarities to vivid life and it is arguably their finest achievement – and there is a very good case to say it is the company's greatest too. With a band of seventy and a chorus of sixty, it showed quite how well the theatre can cope with the acoustic of mega- orchestration and we have perhaps made a rod for our own backs. But the work was a revelation as was the exciting young soprano Natalya Romaniw who delivered a ferocious portrayal of Maliella. And throughout the piece, there were moments that I shall never forget; the heartbreak of Diana Montague's duet with her tortured son, the horror of the final scenes, the stupendous chorus to end Act 2 and the mesmerising procession of the Madonna. From start to finish, James chided me for persuading him it was worth doing but one can only hope, now he has recovered, that he is glad he fell for it!

Very honourable mentions:
La forza del destino (2010) The Consul (1999) Rigoletto (2011) L'amico Fritz (2011)
La rondine (2002 & 2011) Yevgeny Onegin (2012) L'arlesiana (1998 & 2003) Macbeth (2005)
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (2013)

Taken from the 2014 OHP season magazine

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Sadness, anxiety, miners and Britten

In the year since May 2013, OHP have experienced several bereavements of close and precious people associated with the company and it's  been a long, emotionally exhausting twelve months. Most recently, Christine Collins, founder supporter of the Christine Collins Young Artists scheme, passed away leaving not just those within the company devastated but also the fifty people the CCYA has helped over the past three years ( 
We can think of no better tribute to her than for people to come along to the Young Artists performance of Turn of the Screw on 10th July and to celebrate the talent she has helped nurture. The arts would be nothing without people like Christine and we should always remember and treasure them.

First night is three weeks away which suggests the theatre is ready. It isn't. But it is no less ready than it ever is; I just don't ever stop being anxious about it. Carpets are down (yes, carpets) and a biblical scale clean is about to ensue. These are the things that occupy me. Toilets, too. Toilets occupy me a great deal because, well, this is England after all and they matter. A week and a bit will pass and the company will be working on stage and I will get to see Fanciulla again. I can't tell you how pleased I am about that and you should fully expect to be assailed - without pause - for the next month about the brilliance of this opera.

The other production that is starting to occupy my thoughts is Turn of the Screw. Those who have followed OHP's development will understand what a big moment it will be on July 1st when Britten's stark and unfettered psychological opera appears in Holland Park for the first time. Such is the promise of Annilese Miskimmon's production, on our stage, that I find the prospect somewhat disconcerting. 

And summer is arriving tomorrow. Which is nice.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Sponsorship of the arts is about more than money

An adapted version of a piece I wrote for the Standard a few years ago. Still relevant.

I suspect most reading this have a fairly robust understanding of what 'sponsorship', as it relates to events or entertainment, means; why a sponsor wants to attach itself to an event, why a producer needs that investment and the various imperatives that mean it is hard to watch or partake of anything in the realm of amusement that isn't prefaced by an introduction to one brand or another.

Sponsorship is - not unreasonably - a commercial undertaking. Despite the corporate social responsibility benefits most companies want to see attached to it, a sponsorship isn't charity. Today the arts, which have always been the recipient of corporate money but has not always shown a proficient understanding of what the investor wants or needs, is handing around the begging bowl with greater alacrity and earnest pleading in our collective eyes. We all know why that is too. But do arts organisations and events really understand the needs of those whose largesse we seek? Of course, it isn't really largesse is it? Some sponsorship comes about because one powerful individual within a company loves an event or art form and he or she is an exquisitely fortuitous person to find. More commonly, several individuals within the firm will identify an audience and seeks to hit it when its guard is down (usually when said audience is having a really good time). They count numbers, examine profiles, dig and probe, do their sums and then bargain hard; t'was ever thus.

Opera Holland Park, the opera festival whose logo adorns my begging bowl is not unique in searching for partners and in twenty years, I have encouraged the giving of a few million quid by companies who have wanted to associate themselves with the sort of thing we do and the kinds of people who consume it. Some deals have been a doddle, bringing a King's ransom for obvious associations but others have seen me leap through rings of fire for a moderate amount – all sponsorship life is here. But why the arts need sponsorship is precisely the reason it is a good vehicle for projecting a company or brand. Sometimes it is like capturing stardust to try and express the impact of (in my case) opera. It is transient, lasts for a short time but lives in the memory, sometimes forever. Experiences such as those are the most powerful kind. Most sponsorship is attracted to the emotional and the fleeting because what people love, they love with a passion, intensity and irrationality that transcends reason. Festivals like ours have an advantage there because patrons often give unswerving loyalty to it and yes, they do frequently look kindly on a company that helps it to thrive and flourish.

The argument that the arts should be self funding can always be justified by the enormous commercial producers (and good luck to them, although they all seek sponsors too) but culture is what drives and sustains our nation –if that sounds excessive and self-serving, just think about it for a moment. But we can only charge so much for a ticket if we are to ensure that as many people as possible can enjoy the experience. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea supports Opera Holland Park but has conflicting priorities right now and so some of our audience will pay more, partly because we want to keep the thousands of tickets that we sell at just £12. In this, the arts portray community and a collective understanding. Sponsors sit in the space between state support and private donations and they will be asked to play a greater role by this government. I have found that a relationship with a sponsor whose image and reputation is attached to your own inculcates a discipline into the way you present yourself, run the company and manage your staff. A total partnership that runs like a stick of rock through Opera Holland Park's core is the best kind and it helps not just the sponsor looking to engage with our audience and associate itself with the creation of great art but the art itself. And if that sponsorship helps bring more people to opera (or theatre, dance et al) it simply has to be a good thing for our society, for business and the promotion in the long run of a culture of support and giving. OHP would not be where it is without the creative and very participative support of our current sponsors Investec Wealth & Investment (now signed on for a further three years) Cadogan Estates in 2000, without the commitment of Associated Newspapers before that or the partnership we enjoyed with Korn/Ferry for three years. The list of past and present supporters is a gratifyingly long one. These are all sponsors who can justly claim to have played a part in creating something. Simply put, a full-page advertisement in the Sunday Times can't do that.

Arts sponsorship isn't appropriate for everyone and it would be fatuous to propose otherwise but for those with invention, a desire to spend time in an environment suffused with talent, face to face with their stakeholders and clients and to literally help improve our society, then it is unequalled.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Investec Wealth & Investment - back on board

We are pleased and excited to announce that Investec Wealth & Investment, principal sponsor of Opera Holland Park since the 2011 season have agreed to continue the relationship for a further three seasons.  In due course we will announce the sponsorship in more detail.

We should put this into some context; IW&I began their support of OHP at a time when the situation in arts sponsorship had begun to change dramatically.  Corporate sponsorship of the arts, despite government calls for business to step into the breach, is down 11% on recent levels and there are an awful lot of us out there looking for support. I suppose you could characterise it as a "buyer's market" which makes IW&I's decision to support Opera Holland Park even more satisfying.  My own view is that sponsorships, although they are changing in their expression with the advent of social and other electronic media, must ultimately be judged by what they actually bring to the art itself and the contribution to its development that it makes.   Are we a better company now than we were three years ago when the sponsorship began? Yes, and we will almost certainly be better still by 2016. It is a simple measure but a profoundly important one.

We know (or certainly should) that we have to understand and support the aims of the sponsor, that this is a business allowing us to spend its money on artistic endeavour and no amount of romantic PR prose alone is ever going to change that reality, but sponsorships do have to be dynamically concerned with and focused upon the work we present to our audience. And this one has been from the start, with IW&I devoting significant human and financial resources (above the sponsorship fee) to promoting the art form, engaging dozens of their own staff in a real way with the music, encouraging support from their clients and contributing any number of creative ideas for helping us engage with our patrons.   IW&I value our brand as much as we protect and concern ourselves with theirs (the zebras have become a very popular attraction at the theatre!) and they wholeheartedly share the aims represented by our Inspire Project too, funding free tickets for our Alice's Adventures in Wonderland production for example. 

Surviving in the arts world is becoming more challenging with every day and so the support of IW&I, as well as our roster of other partners and supporters, is simply critical to the fabric of cultural Britain - ever more so for companies who, like OHP, have accessibility at the heart of the enterprise. We need to accept that without them, the sort of challenging work we all want to do probably wouldn't be possible and so we should hope that as many companies as possible engage with the arts as a powerful way to develop their businesses.

Welcome on board for another three years IW&I.

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.