Tuesday, 4 June 2013

An encounter with Opera Holland Park's James Clutton

Lucia di Lammermoor, Opera Holland Park 2012
Opera Holland Park's 2013 season opens tonight (4 June 2013) with a production of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci directed by Stephen Barlow and conducted by Stuart Stratford. It is a strong start to a strong season, with six main stage operas and a new family opera. I caught up with producer James Clutton to talk about the new season.

Of the opera's being performed this year (Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Les Pecheurs de Perles, L'Elisir d'Amore, I Gioielli  della Madonna, Madama Butterfly , Alice in Wonderland) five are Italian, one is French plus Will Todd's new family opera in English. Clutton admits that the season has a bias towards Italian opera but this isn't so much a deliberate policy as a reflection of taste. Italian opera is what the team at Opera Holland Park (OHP) love. But Clutton also feels that the operas suit the theatre, as its semi-permanent nature in the middle of a metropolitan mark means that not every opera works well there. He cites a recent production of Pelleas et Melisande. OHP were very happy with the production itself, but Clutton felt that the delicacy of the score and its use of silence did not lend itself to performance in Holland Park where there is usually ambient background noise and you cannot rely on there being silence. Clutton thinks that the bigger scale of some of the Italian operas scores is just right for the theatre.

Clutton is very pleased with the casting this year, and they have mixed some very well-known names with old OHP favourites and newcomers, including Sarah Tynan, Diana Montague, Natalya Romaniw, Anne Sophie Duprels, Stephen Gadd and Peter Auty. Auty will be singing both tenor roles in Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, and Clutton wonders when was the last time that an English tenor did this in London?

But it isn't just Italian opera that OHP has a reputation for, they also regularly dust off operas which have been left on the shelves (including Montemezzi' L'Amore dei tre Rei, Catalani's La Wally, Zandonai's Francesca di Rimini, Cilea's L'Arlesiana and Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz). I joke with Clutton that they might be running out of possible operas, but he assures me that they have plenty more in mind, particularly general manager Mike Volpe who Clutton credits both for his passion and expertise in this area.

With these rarities, Clutton feels that he can clam that whilst they are not masterpieces, he is confident that each has it moments when the music is the equal of the classics. The exception to this Clutton assures me is Montemezzi's L'Amore dei tre Re (which OHP performed in 2007) which is as good as anything in the classics. And this is one of the joys of OHP's seasons, the delight in finding new things.

This year's rarity is Wolf-Ferrari's I Gioielli  della Madonna; a piece which has been under consideration for some time but Clutton says that initially they were put off owing to the poor quality of the only complete recording of the opera. Eventually the company had recourse to the traditional method of piano play throughs before deciding. The opera is, Clutton admits, crazy for OHP as a company to mount as it is very big. There are 11 principal roles, some smaller than others but even these comprimario roles have significant music and the opera needs fantastic singers right down the list.  In fact OHP has four students from the National Opera Studio joining them in the comprimario roles.

Clutton regards the opera as a challenge, but adds that it is fantastic. Quite what a challenge becomes apparent when he starts quoting figures. I Gioielli  della Madonna will use an orchestra of 66 plus on-stage banda of 10, which is massive in OHP terms when their usual orchestra has a maximum size of 45 to 50 players. The chorus numbers are similar with I Gioielli  della Madonna using 50 chorus members plus supernumaries for processions and children's chorus. In fact, there are so many people back stage that they have had to build extra facilities.

They have a strong cast for the opera, including Natalyia Romaniw, Olafur Sigurdarson and Diana Montague and Clutton talks about the very real excitement that the piece is generating. He talks about how critics and seasoned opera goers come to hear the regular repertoire with an image in their minds of how the piece should look and sound. But with I Gioielli  della Madonna the performance is like a premiere, the audience will come without preconceptions. Clutton is convinced that this will make them listen to the story and to the music more, and that it adds a whose new dynamic to the performance.

As if this wasn't enough, OHP is  also giving the premiere of a new family opera commissioned from Will Todd, Alice in Wonderland. For the last few years OHP has performed Tobias Picker's The Fabulous Mister Fox as their family opera. Clutton originally heard The Fabulous Mister Fox in Los Angeles and decided it would make the family opera OHP needed. The original was two hours long and the OHP team worked on it to trim it down to one hour and create their own family show. Having done this, they felt that they knew how a family opera should work, so they have commissioned Alice in Wonderland from Will Todd. Clutton calls the story an archetypal one which resonates both in Britain and internationally and says it feels just right for the opera.

The production will be a semi-promenade one in the park with a band of 11 and 16 singers. 150 people can see the show at a time, with children at £3 and adults at £8. Not surprisingly, tickets went within 24 hours of going on sale. The show is intended to be a genuine introduction to opera. Todd's music is full of melodies and they want it to be a real entry level piece for both adults and children. It last just over an hour and all the big characters are there. The opera premieres on 20 July, and Clutton describes himself as really excited.

The other big factor in any OHP season is, of course, the weather. Clutton admits that the weather does rather dominate their thoughts, but they have done a lot of work to make the theatre's structure more protected with a lot of extra covering at the sides of the theatre and in the foyers. For Clutton, in bad weather the show does not change, but the performers have to work harder. If it is pouring with rain, then they still get people coming but it is much more of a slog for the performers. They hope for a season where no-one ever things about the weather!

OHP's core audience has changed gradually over the years. Typically they have had a hard core of what Clutton describes as local-ish people, from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and beyond. But over the years tastes have grown more educated so that Carmen is no longer a novelty and the more unusual operas sell out.  A lot of their audience now comes from the City of London. Clutton points out that unlike the other summer festivals (Garsington, Grange Park Opera, Glyndebourne) you can be in the office at 6pm and still attend the opera at Holland Park.

They still have a lot of entry level audience each year, so Clutton regards it as fantastic that they can still perform core repertoire. This isn't just a box office decision, after all the novelty items sell out as well, but means this that they can present the well known operas in an non intimidating way. Clutton is clearly proud of the fact that OHP has no dress code. They attract audiences who have never seen the opera before, and Clutton tries to encourage his performers to deliver the work as if newly commissioned.

I finish off by asking Clutton whether he has a desert island opera that he would like to produce at Holland Park, if money was no objects. He admits that he would love to do the Ring, perhaps in Jonathan Dove's reduced orchestration but laughs and says that perhaps he'd love to announce it but then leave it to another producer to have the headache of actually putting on the work.

Opera Holland Park's 2013 season opens on 4 June and runs until 3 August 2013, further information from the Opera Holland Park website.

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