Marketers not preachers

Should we really care about Glyndebourne’s influencer post about opera-going fashion?

This weekend one or two us have got a little worked up about a tweet Glyndebourne put out, driving followers to a fashion bloggers tips for attending the opera.

Cue the cries of ‘Charlatans!’ I was one of those who not only rolled my eyes but helped spread the indignation across the internet.

It seemed a questionable thing to be putting out there.

Whilst one section of the industry is reaching out to new audiences by trying to play down perceptions of elitism articulated through attire, one of the sector’s world-renowned brands is embracing the very thing so many others berate the sector for and doubling down on it.

In case you weren’t already aware, it annoys the actual fuck out of me.

It’s annoying because I want us to be talking about the artform (whether its classical music or opera), not conforming to stereotypes which effectively distance new audiences from it.

Nobody talks about what to wear when they go and see a movie. If we’re trying to normalise the artform, why talk about fashion tips for attending opera?

The business of ticket-selling

In fairness, Glyndebourne does this quite a lot. A Google Image Search reveals a number of fashion-related content sites tapping into Glyndebourne buzz in order to drive traffic and relevance.

But there is another perspective I had overlooked. Cue Philhamonia Marketing Chap Tim Woodall’s tweet last night.

An interesting dichotomy emerged when I read that: one from the arts organisation perspective, and the second from mine.

Organisations like Glyndebourne are in the business of selling tickets. Their tickets give people access to experiences, of which seeing an opera is one element of a trip to the Sussex site. The rest is, whether we like it or not, eating food and drinking alcohol in the grounds beforehand.

The fact that when I attended I had a couple of sandwiches from Waitrose and shared a bottle of something reasonably-priced with a pal says more about my budget constraints than it does about Glyndebourne’s aesthetic.

Tim’s tweet (above) and the response from Will Norris (formerly OAE now Southbank Sinfonia) reminds me yet again that for the majority of arts marketers, selling tickets is what is important.

And, just as the Southbank seeks to increase reach by drawing people in with various retail and food outlets, so the likes of Glyndebourne have to capitalise on every asset at their disposal and reach out to various different interest groups.

To put it very crudely, if someone has the money to buy a ticket for an experience they can say they’ve been to even though they’re not especially interested in the core content, then are the marketers really going to turn their noses up at who’s buying the ticket? If the image-conscious are the ones with a budget they don’t mind denting, then why not target them?

Who’s catering for the choir?

It leads me back to some thinking I’ve been chewing over recently. If organisations are targetting those who are different from people like me (ie fully signed-up fans), then where are people like me feeling as though our values in the artform are being acknowledged?

Some will say that people like me don’t need to be persuaded because we will always love the artform, that it doesn’t matter about the negative impact targeted marketing might have, because the priority is ticket sales. I’ll buy tickets because of the works and the performers; others might consider buying tickets because of some other entirely different reason.

But the more I recognise this alternative perspective, the more I wonder where people like me are catered for in marketing and journalism.

I don’t consider myself a scholar, but I’m knowledgeable. I resent being described as a classical music geek or nerd, but I know stuff. I advocate based on that knowledge and experience. But that’s neither needed nor wanted because its not useful to selling a ticket quickly.

Maybe what this really means is that I should set myself up as a fashion blogger. Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years.

What’s in store at Waterperry Opera 2019

Highlights from this year’s Waterperry Opera Festival plus exclusive working costume designs from their production of Purcell’s Fairy Queen.

One of things that has been thrown into sharp relief post-Proms launch last week is how much more appealing other events running over the summer now present themselves.

Summer at this point in time is about planning a season of activities, discoveries, and indulgences. Waterperry Opera Festival is one such event. I’ll be writing about one of the others – the New Music Biennial – later this week.

The frisson of excitement around Waterperry Opera is part down to its scale and its impact.

Only in their second year, the young team of young professionals have quickly established themselves at Waterperry Gardens near Oxford as an energetic bunch, driven but affable, relaxed but professional.

They make a product which is easy to endorse: talk to any one of them involved and the energy they exude is infectious.

If an outsider like me can feel welcome, then the same warmth is going to be felt by their audience.

What’s appealing about Waterperry then is it’s unfussiness.

There’s an Enid Blyton feel to activities on-site – post-graduate entrepreneurs seizing an opportunity to fill a hole in a local community and doing so with style, grace and a down-to-earth kind of sophistication.

There’s something honest about it all. A rural summer opera festival built for a local audience – a mix of connoisseurs and the curious. No airs and graces. The kind of thing that just sells itself.

In that way they could just as likely be singing from a telephone book and I’d happily endorse them.

I am also wondering whether Waterperry could be one of those events which will in time highlight the next wave of talent. That’s going to take a few years to see happen as personnel permeate throughout the industry, but I like the idea of it.

And I wonder there whether that suggests another part of the appeal of Waterperry: its potential.

Working costume designs for Waterperry Opera’s 2019 production of Purcell’s Fairy Queen by Simon Bejer.

Let’s not overlook the most important thing: the programme. Highlights below.

  1. Mozart’s Magic Flute. Tick.
  2. A re-run of Jonathan Dove’s hugely entertaining Mansfield Park performed in an actual Regency house. Tick.
  3. Britten’s Canticle ‘Abraham and Isaac’ (I’ve never heard it). Tick.
  4. Purcell’s Fairy Queen. Tick. (The costume designs revealed at the fundraiser night are a joyful creation in themselves).

What’s key to all of these productions is the proximity of performance. In both the purpose built amphitheatre and Waterperry’s regency ballroom the proximity of audience member to performer makes for a more immediate chamber-like opera.

Working costume designs for Waterperry Opera’s 2019 production of Purcell’s Fairy Queen by Simon Bejer.

But there is another aspect which is important to flag. There’s variety riven in the Festival’s apparent simplicity and accessibility, and that variety represents a careful balance between pushing the performers and the audience. It’s an endeavour which seeks to embed itself in a community. That its done so so very quickly is impressive. I put it down to alchemy.

Waterperry Opera Festival runs from 25 – 28 July 2019. Booking opens Monday 22 April. Tickets will go fast.

Review: Upon this Handful of Earth

A compelling production with a prescient universal message at its heart. Gisle Kverndokk’s deft writing for voice and orchestra and Aksel-Otto Bull’s pragmatic libretto steered this commission away from what could have easily been a worthy issue-driven statement.

Upon this Handful of Earth is an efficient opera for a small cast plus adult and children’s chorus that draws in part on Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s text “Mass for the World” from the 1920s, and combines it with present-day accounts of climate change disasters and austere biblical references.

Such artistic endeavours have a tendency to come across as a little worthy. And whilst some of the acting in this staged performance was found to be lacking, there was still an overall cohesion to the entire work brought out by believable characters, resolute performances and a compelling score. Despite its often bleak dramatic moments, there was intensity baked into the work – a robust work that deserves more attention outside of Norway, perhaps in a drier acoustic with a proscenium arch.

Some of the impact of the work was down to proximity. Audience and chorus were effectively in the round overlooking the action on the centre stage. A warmth eminated from proceedings that made this less something we were observing, more something we were all responsible for.

But there was also a sense of geographic context which added another dimension to proceedings. In one part of the drama sees The Businessman (Trump-like in his lines) illustrate the source of his profits during a work performed in a city which has itself benefitted from the wholesale extraction of oil on the Norwegian coastline. This local relevance gives the opera a potency which, combined with the intimate surroundings of Oslo’s Trinity Church, made the message all the more difficult to ignore.

Gisle Kverndokk’s writing is accessible and inclusive, but avoids cliche or sentimentality. There is originality to his musical language which provides gravitas to the subject material whilst not being pompous or aloof. There are strong musical theatre elements in some of the arias, in particular The Young Man’s aria ‘Darkness has eliminated the light’ and The Wife’s lamentMother Earth is just a barren land, a wasteland‘. Elsewhere in the work, the musical theatre style acts as a foundation of a confident distinctive language. In other places its use is a little more evident, perhaps jarringly so.

The composer writes lovingly for the voice and for chorus, crafting rich evocative sequences with close harmony and delicious diminished chords, resulting in a sophisticated palette that at times out-Rutters John Rutter.

There was a burnished quality to the opening melodic phrase – a sort of idee fix for the central message ‘Upon this handful of earth‘.

All of the singers provided strong contributions to the production, though one or two occassionally seemed lost in the acoustic melee.

Baritone Halvor F Melinen played the The Priestt with a solid voice which swam around Kverndokk’s lush score. Njal Spabo as The Businessman boomed with a sense of menace from time to time,. Although the diction was undoubtedly there throughout sometimes his bombast seemed a little overplayed. Philip Weiss-Hagen gave an assured performance as The Child.

Using children to recite the eyewitness accounts from various media reports made for a chilling perspective. The community-feel to proceedings threw focus on the next generation in these moments. Hope shone through after the Noah-esque storm had passed, though what was left was a sense that it was the next generation who would save us, the people who had essentially created the problem for them to solve. At a point in time when schoolchildren are striking to protest against climate change inaction, this dramatic twist made the work even more potent and very difficult to shake off.

This perforamnce of Upon This Handful of Earth was part of the Oslo International Church Music Festival 2019 on Sunday 24 March.

Listen to a Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast interview with composer and librettist Gisle Kverndokk and Aksel-Otto Bull on Audioboom and Spotify.

Review: Guildhall School of Music’s 2019 production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Ambitious programming, some strong voices, and a brilliant set. The direction didn’t always support voice projection. Bottom, strong.

I didn’t especially enjoy the Guildhall’s Midsummer Night’s Dream production last week. It’s probably best to just come out and say it straight off the bat.

This was ambitious programming, the challenge of which was undoubtedly met by the striking set design which did much to make use of Silk Street Theatre’s considerable perhaps even intimidating space.

It seems incredible to think that the first performance of the work in 1960 was in Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall – a much smaller space than that at the Guildhall’s theatre. The restricted available space undoubtedly will have influenced Britten’s composition in terms of resources. I had for example always considered MSND a chamber opera like Lucretia or Herring. Yet, in the Silk Street Theatre, the production gave the work a larger scale symphonic feel.

This wasn’t altogether successful. There were some moments the direction had positioned solo voices were positioned at the back of the raked stage, sometimes characters singing side on to the audience. From time to time diction was lost and the orchestra dominated.

The set design probably didn’t help in this regard. A design which reduced the active stage area may well have imposed restrictions on the direction which in turn may have supported the voices a little more.

Collin Shay (Oberon) caught my ear quite early on. A demanding role it seems to me which exposes the performer right from the off. What I appreciated most in his performance was the way it developed throughout the production. Though a confident presence on stage, I did wonder whether nerves had got to him initially. Subsequent appearances saw his delivery get progressively stronger.

Those scenes featuring the Rustics (for those unfamiliar with Britten and Pears’ libretto this is where Bottom has his starring role) were when energy was resolutely on stage. The ensemble was tight, rich, and warm. Collective confidence brought their scenes to life.

Christian Valle (Bottom) played a distinctive character. Unorthodox, daring but also charming. William Thomas (Quince) proved a suitable foil making Bottom’s awkwardness lovable.

Performance attended: Wednesday 27 February 2019
Picture credit: Clive Barda

Thoroughly Good Podcast Series 5 Ep 28: Conductor Jessica Cottis

A new opera – The Monstrous Child – by composer Gavin Higgins and author Francesca Simon, opens at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre on Thursday 21 Febraury.

Jessica Cottis conducts the Aurora Orchestra. Jessica and I met in the Linbury Theatre during a break in rehearsals on Thursday 14 February.

In podcast number 28, Jessica and I talk about the opera, we discussed the connection between science and the arts, orchestral scores, the thrill of being in the orchestra pit, and polyhedric structures. 

For more information and ticket availability visit the Royal Opera House website

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