Does opera exclude you, or do you exclude opera?

The public need to take the lead in exploring opera, says director of Opera Holland Park Michael Volpe

Does opera exclude you, or do you exclude opera?
La bohème at Opera Holland Park, 2016 (Credit: Robert Workman)

Michael Volpe is general director of Opera Holland Park, which he founded in 1996. In its 20 years, the company has won widespread praise for introducing not only new audiences to opera but also giving fresh life to otherwise neglected works. But as he explains below, exploring and championing opera requires willingness from both performers and audiences alike…

Go-to writers on the matter of accessibility in opera often have a patter, a script; I am one of those people who have been writing pieces like this for two decades, but it would seem my message is still needed. I even wrote a book (Noisy at the wrong times) on the theme of my school and how it introduced me to the arts, and I continue to argue incessantly with people who claim opera is for the rich, unattainable, impenetrable, elitist and from a parallel universe. I swear and shout and stamp my feet – well I used to, but I stopped doing that because it doesn’t work.

Instead, at Opera Holland Park, we do what many opera companies in the UK do and spread the message of the all-embracing wonder of theatrical music to anyone who will listen. And what we find is that almost without exception, it works: people are hooked, moved, and have their eyes and ears opened to a new world. The most recent evidence of this is our film From Footy to Verdi, in which we took three Chelsea fans to the opera and saw remarkable results. 

Our proselytising is all done within a project called Inspire, and it features a substantial portfolio of methods with which we either take opera to the people, or bring people to the opera. 2,100 tickets for our summer season priced at just £18 are available under the scheme, as well as 1,100 free tickets for young and old. We also have a family production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that runs on our back lawn through July with tickets costing less than the cinema. There is a bewildering array of work going on in care homes, with dementia patients, with children in schools, or children and adults with learning difficulties. There are audio-described performances with touch tours, a ‘relaxed’ performance of Alice at which parents with autistic children who find public environments challenging can enjoy the show without judgement or fear of disturbing others. The list is an enormous one.

So accessibility as it relates to what are known as ‘hard to reach’ audiences is something we work hard at, but it is the art form itself that we struggle to convince people is welcoming and open to all – and this is the issue upon which I become most truculent. It is especially frustrating when we see the innate capacity for enjoying opera that the public has via pop versions and crossover artists, singers on Britain’s Got Talent et al.

So here is the news: opera has never been more accessible and it has never been easier to get cheap, or even free, tickets.

There is opera in pubs, clubs, bars, theatres, parks and restaurants and they all demonstrate, in one way or another, the intense theatrical and musical experience this art form provides. At the full-scale version in larger houses and theatres, you are almost guaranteed to find yourself utterly wrung out by its simple, visceral, straight to the heart power.

The problem with accessibility in opera is not opera itself. It is the public who take on board the silly tropes and stereotypes and exclude themselves from a rich and rewarding experience. They are not 'unqualified', they are not 'beneath' opera or unworthy of it; they just don’t go and explore it, in the same way that they don’t explore theatre, or ballet or orchestral music.

All of the above are accessible in the way they have always been – we have just redefined what accessible means in our society. These art forms spend enormous amounts of time and money trying to prove it, but what first led societies to build magnificent theatres to house the performance of this art hasn’t changed, society has. And what is needed to repair the mindset of swathes of our society appears to be, at present, the last thing the government wants to do as it strips the arts and culture from our schools and devalues the qualifications associated with it.

Michael Volpe (centre) with other Chelsea fans at Opera Holland Park last season 

It wasn’t always like that: in the early 20th century, opera companies used to tour to all corners of the country and fill houses to the rafters with the working classes. People now have other entertainments and technology teaches our children to perceive the world through a screen, but we know from experience that, even now, kids adore the spectacle, imagery and sound of an operatic performance. Evolution - both literal and the modern technological kind - hasn’t yet eradicated this capacity in us.

So yes, opera is accessible – people need to let it in, not the other way around.


Michael Volpe's book 'Noisy at the wrong times' is published by Two Roads and available now. For full details of Opera Holland Park’s Inspire programme and forthcoming season, please click here.


Read more:

• The problem with perfection

• Classical music inspired by Autumn


  • Article Type: | Blog |
More about...
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here