Opera Holland Park founder James Clutton tries to convince Alexander Larman why a night at the opera is not just an event for the elite
Meeting Opera Holland Park’s (OHP) producer James Clutton in the High Street Kensington branch of Carluccio’s proves to be a slightly unexpected experience. For one thing, although he’s dressed in the smart three-piece suit you’d expect from one of London’s leading opera impresarios, he’s very different to the slightly otherworldly types who normally seem to drift around opera houses, gently humming arias to themselves. He’s straight-talking, tremendously good value and extremely entertaining company, without an ounce of pretension or preciousness about what he’s been doing at OHP since he joined the company in 2000, after a successful career in West End theatre, where he worked with the likes of Bill Kenwright and Judi Dench.
He openly confesses that he was glad to leave theatre due to what he calls ‘my enormous boredom’ with star vehicles. ‘It seemed more as if plays were put together with people off soaps and The X Factor than proper singers and actors.’ When he started at OHP, he was delighted to discover that it was an entirely different criteria for success. ‘The marquee names here are the operas, and the composers. That’s because apart from a handful of opera stars in the world, there aren’t household names. Therefore, you get to look at the best singers for the job, rather than having to hire in the West End way.’
Perhaps surprisingly, Clutton didn’t grow up an enormous opera fan (he preferred The Beatles), which he credits with giving him a much freer perspective on whether a production succeeds or fails. ‘I never thought that things had to be done a certain way, so I suppose when I started I brought my theatrical experience and thought ‘Does this entertain?’ ‘Is this the best use of the budget?’ For instance, all our productions used to be double cast, which is hugely extravagant, so we’ve moved into a repertory system instead. Everyone gets a night off, and we’ve managed to maintain the quality without the expense.’
The Holland Park venue is one of London’s most beloved places to watch a performance, with its open-air setting a beautiful venue on a balmy summer evening. According to Clutton, the weather’s normally held out (‘apart from last year’), and the idea for visitors is to give them a sense of space and peace, as well as an unusual way of seeing opera. ‘It’s obviously a challenge for designers and lighters, but when it works well, there are more lighting effects than could ever be imagined. Same for performers – at first, seeing the audience can be a bit nerve-wracking, but most of them thrive on it, especially because the acoustics are terrific.’
Not that it’s always been an unmitigated success. ‘A few years ago, we had a staging of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, and our tenor was in such a bad way that by the end of the night he could barely speak, rather than sing.’ Although a disaster at the time, there was a silver lining; the Mariinsky theatre opera were in town, and Clutton managed to charm them into, literally, lending him a tenor, who then performed with a couple of hours’ notice. The results were, Clutton beams, ‘good chaos’. In one of those funny touches of serendipity that seem to enter artists’ lives more often than ours, he found a playing card in the street – outside the ENO – and it was the queen of spades. ‘I still carry it around with me as a good luck charm’, he confides.
The day to day management of OHP is challenging, but always exciting. Clutton compares his role to that of President Bartlett in The West Wing, in his need to anticipate potential problems and opportunities in the same way that a chess player might. ‘A really good production has to have chemistry between the people you put together, and the foresight to know what’s going to work and who’s going to work well with who. This isn’t about having the best five singers in the world, but five singers who are going to get on with each other, and the conductor, and the director. When I interview people, I put down the CV and say ‘just talk to me’, and we get a much better picture of what the relationship’s going to be like then.’
Along with his OHP partner Michael Volpe, who deals with the company’s managerial and marketing elements, Clutton is passionate about making opera relevant to the local community, where he’s often recognised on the street and praised or criticised for his latest production. ‘People say ‘I don’t like opera’, and I say ‘there’s lots of opera I don’t like!’ But nobody says ‘I don’t like films’ or ‘I don’t like music’, so it’s up to us to show what opera can be.’ To this end, OHP offer anything from flashmob style performances in the local Tesco and on Portobello Road to going into local schools. Getting the young into opera is one of Clutton’s major interests, so much so that OHP offers 1200 free tickets to the under-18s every season as part of its ‘Inspire’ project. Not that it’s just teenagers who benefit; ‘Inspire’ also offers pensioners nearly 500 free tickets, as well as giving quick-fingered general audiences the chance to pick up a ticket for just £12. All the same, with average prices around a quarter of the ENO and the Royal Opera House, an evening at the OHP isn’t going to break the bank. This suits Clutton well; ‘I want people to relax and enjoy themselves, not worry about how much it’s cost to come out.’
As we part ways, James looks me in the eye and says ‘Promise me that you’ll come and see us this summer?’ I wouldn’t dream of not doing so. Let’s just hope that the weather holds up.
Stable Yard, Holland Park W8 6LU