The man behind Opera Holland Park Michael Volpe on how his old school cemented his love for the arts
Michael Volpe is on flying form, and it’s no surprise why. He’s just published his memoir, Noisy At The Wrong Times, and it just happens to be one of the year’s most diverting books. It offers a beautifully written account of his childhood, first in the mean streets of pre-gentrification Fulham, and then of his education at the so-called ‘poor man’s Eton’, the legendary state boarding school Woolverstone Hall School in Suffolk.
We meet at the cosy, London Pride-pouring hang-out of the Scarsdale Tavern in Kensington to discuss the book. A familiar figure looms up in sunglasses and shorts; it is none other than Piers Morgan. Volpe, an affable man who is not shy of letting a few choice expletives fly, glances over at him, mutters an unprintable joke, and then resumes with our interview.
When asked about his impetus for writing the book, Michael answers, ‘it’s because of a trinity of people in my life – my brother Matteo, my mum and my dad – who all died within 18 months of each other, and that encapsulated my family. My father wasn’t really there, he left when I was very young, but Matteo was a loveable rogue who fell into an enormously destructive cycle because of drugs, which meant that my time in Fulham was eventful, to say the least. So I just started writing, and it went from an essay to a book.’
The majority of the book deals with Michael’s schooldays at Woolverstone, and he’s got some insightful opinions about how our current education system could benefit from reform. ‘These days, it’s all about box ticking, rather than people managing to have a liberal education. I’d take teaching outside of the political spectrum but it’s become such a nightmare. The sort of things that I learned at school helped me to view the world differently, and I’d love to get rid of exams.’
Michael’s education benefited him in other and more surprising ways. ‘When it came to my O-levels, I just didn’t care, but when I left school, I felt different to the people I’d been around. And it was because we hadn’t just been given an education, but we’d been convinced that it was worth having as well. It was school that developed my interest in books and classical music, and that let me act. And there’s a huge number of high-profile people who went to Woolverstone who have been successful – the actor Neil Pearson, Ian McEwan and Phill Jupitus. I run into people quite frequently who went there, and we always sit and have a chat.’ He pauses, ‘It really was a remarkable place.’ Though not all former pupils share Michael’s fond memories, Jupitus described his time there to The Independent as ‘four miserable years.’
The book doesn’t sugarcoat what went on in schools in the 60s and 70s, and there are some scenes of corporal punishment and teacher-pupil violence that are both eye-opening and shocking. Michael, however, doesn’t seem too traumatised by it all. ‘I seemed to bring out aggression in certain masters! Some of my old teachers have read it, and they were surprised at how much violence is in the book – but I didn’t see it like that, I just tried to describe it as it was. It was actually much worse from the prefects than it was from the boys, as it was all about abuse of power. My housemaster, for instance, was calm and fair, and we used to look at it in terms of an exchange – ‘if I do this, I’ll get three whacks, is it worth it?’ And often we’d say ‘yes, it is worth it, fair play.’
It’s a long way from Woolverstone’s mixture of hard discipline and betterment to his current role as general manager at Opera Holland Park (OHP), but Michael takes it all in his stride. He explains briefly in his book how he went from being an unqualified school leaver to running an opera company (short answer: self belief and the willingness of various people to give him a chance), and in the 25 years that he and his business confederate James Clutton (who pops in at one point during the interview to say hi, declaring: ‘I’d know that voice anywhere!’) have been running OHP, it’s established itself as one of London’s leading opera houses, offering a mix of new and famous operas in new productions. Michael is admirably blunt about what he does and doesn’t like – Tosca, for instance, meets with his seal of approval (‘brilliant, brilliant stuff and with an unbelievably charismatic villain-hero’), but Carmen doesn’t (‘I just can’t stand it’). He’s looking forward to a strong 2015 season, and a particular highlight for him is a new staging of Delibes’ Lakmé, which he describes as ‘famous for the Flower Duet, but there’s so much more to it – it’s very rarely staged and so we’re delighted that we’re doing it.’
An hour and a half in the sun with Michael and a couple of glasses of wine is an utter pleasure – if only all interviews were this much fun. Finally, it’s time to head off. As we shake hands, Michael smiles, and says ‘write something nice, OK?’
Words Alexander Larman
Noisy at the Wrong Times is published on the 28 June, Troubador Publishing Ltd