Review: Hip Hop To Opera on BBC iPlayer

I started watching Opera Holland Park’s Hip Hop To Opera at 11.27 this morning. I was ‘properly’ crying by 11.32.

The 25-minute programme tells the story of what happened when a group of teenagers at an inner-city London school were exposed to opera for the first time packs a punch. It is a must watch.

The last opera-related preview I received, I was subsequently advised by the person who invited me), was extended to me in the belief that I hated opera. I couldn’t quite work out whether the person in question was having a laugh at my expense telling me, whether it was part of an elaborate process to expose me to a greater range of culture, or whether the invitation was a twisted joke.

That’s how some use opera – as a weapon – to belittle, or self-aggrandise. Few actually meet opera head on. Nor, encourage others to do the same.

I was reminded of all this watching Hip Hop to Opera. Seeing young people experiencing opera positively has had an unexpected effect on me. Hip Hop to Opera renews my faith in the next generation. (Obviously, what that really means is that I posessed a negative view of the negative generation. Where does that come from? I can only assume it comes from the media.)

The programme also triggers a wave of relief too: this art form is appreciated by newcomers. All that broadcast-related stuff drilled into digital content producers about young people only being prepared to watch 90-second content is (partially) laid to rest.

But all that only partially explains the sobbing. What’s most powerful in the programme is the immediacy of the personalities. They don’t say a huge amount. They don’t need to. Everything about them – their openness, warmth, intellect, willingness and curiosity is communicated through their eyes. Their eyes sparkle. Their smiles are wide. They put the rest of us to shame.

And the power of the eyes is everything. Last year in Kathmandu when I was making a film about a disabled children’s charity there I struggled to reconcile the plight and chaos around me with the love I saw in all the kids I pointed the camera at. At the beginning of this week, producing some material for a client, I filmed the work of an English Speaking Unit in Rusholme where refugees learn about work-related English language. There I saw vulnerability, isolation and fear in people’s eyes. They didn’t tell me about it. They can’t speak much English. I saw it in their eyes.

So it is with Hip Hop to Opera. The emotion is at the forefront. The sentiment. Which is neat. Because that’s exactly the point Michael Volpe (General Manager of Opera Holland Park) is making in the programme to his guests and to us the viewers.

Of course, one of the most powerful reasons the programme has so much impact isn’t only because of the contributors but because of the rapport the director and interviewer has with the people he’s speaking to. Meaning what we see on screen is a reflection of the spirit of each relationship. And its Volpe who does the lot, including the editing at the end. The finished product reflects the very art form the man loves; the art form he’s advocating.

This programme comes highly-recommended. It speaks to me in the way I like to work. It reflects the stance me and associates of mine who advocate classical music and opera have adopted. It demonstrates neatly what is involved in capturing emotion on camera, and shows how you don’t need big resources deployed to produce such content.

But more than any of this, it neatly reinforces the point I made to Opera Holland Park’s marketing team when I sat in a windowless meeting room with them earlier in the week talking about why OHP as a brand resonated with me. “It’s accessible, it’s honest, it’s authentic,” I said, watching the people in front of me furiously scribble in their notebooks. “OHP lacks pretension, but still conjures up a magical sense of occasion at every single performance. I don’t think that’s a miracle. I imagine that can only be an extension of the personalities of its management.”

I hadn’t watched Hip Hop To Opera until this morning. Turns out I was right on the nose.

Hip Hop To Opera is available via BBC iPlayer or YouTube

Investec Opera Holland Park to perform one-off Verdi Requiem for Grenfell Tower survivors

Investec Opera Holland Park will stage a one-off performance of Verdi’s Requiem on Tuesday 1 August 2017. All proceeds from the event will go to those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, with funds distributed by Rugby Portobello Trust.

Tickets are on sale from today, priced at £35, £25 and £20. They can be purchased online or by telephone and donations can also be made online.

All tickets are sold out, but Opera Holland Park are inviting those who would to hear the performance to turn up at Holland Park and listen from outside the venue.

Performers include Anne Sophie Duprels (soprano), Yvonne Howard (mezzo-soprano), Neal Cooper (tenor) and Barnaby Rea (bass), plus the Opera Holland Park Chorus, the City of London Sinfonia and conductors Sian Edwards and Peter Robinson.

Several of OHP’s staff are residents of North Kensington. One current member of staff, and Grenfell resident, is currently missing.

Find out more about the Verdi Requiem memorial concert and to book tickets or donate:

Classical on Social Media

Digital is driven by visuals. I say that without bitterness too. Words matter and, my view is that, ever-increasingly longer reads will eventually return to favour, the form resiliently finding its niche in the same way vinyl has slowed clawed its way part-way back into people’s consciousness.

Until words discover their digital advocates, images remain dominant. They’re there to grab attention. In a noisy environment like social media, impact is everything. Imagery not only has to tell a story in itself, but it also has to trigger a reaction, one which commits to the explicit call-to-action. If not that, an image needs to tap into a deeply held personal value.

Imagery then is a harder working asset in the digital sphere. It has to achieve more than words, in far less time. An MIT study in 2014 reported that the brain has the ability to process images as quickly as 13 milliseconds, down from the 100 milliseconds suggested by previous studies.

So, if you’ve got a message to convey, one that advocates a sector which struggles to cut-through, why wouldn’t you invest in making sure the image is doing that heavy lifting?,

Some arts organisations stick a photograph up of a rehearsal and think that will suffice. Others do it really well, straddling inventiveness and resourcefulness accidentally, or in some cases, deftly.

Here’s an in-exhaustive and personal selection. More next Monday.

1. Jugend Ensemble Berlin / Danse!

An image card to promote a youth orchestra concert. That’s all it is.

But it’s a fun, clean design, doing what more orchestras should be doing and leading on the anticipated experience of the audience member rather than composer’s names and works which may, to some, seem unfamiliar.

2. Aldeburgh Festival 2017 Retrospective

This video montage cut with music performed at the Festival this year, plays to Snape Maltings’ strength. A picturesque, restorative location illustrated in the simple beauty of the location, concert hall interior, and in the production of the video itself.

I also really like the way that the call to action is played down, meaning the transaction is sophisticated.

With the festival over, the video draws the eye and drives the user to BBC Radio 3’s on-demand content recorded at Snape. The end product raises awareness and reinforces the brand. It gives those of for whom continuity is important hope that Aldeburgh remains distinctive.

3. NPO announcement from Arts Council England

I was really impressed with the graphical elements that support ACE’s NPO announcement this week. This was helped no doubt by a strong message that permeated most of the write-ups in the arts media.

The engaging images (there was a suite of graphics designed to illustrate how ACE supports a wide range of cultural endeavours in the country) helped shape perception that ACE didn’t just support arts organisations, but was an cultural advocate that was itself creative. Professionalism underpinned the consistent visual identity.

The design was also supported by a clear commitment to open data (the UK searchable map was a bit of a treat) that created a rich user journey from social media to raw data, defying expectations and shattering assumptions.

4. Largest Orchestra Selfie / Gewandhaus Orchestra

What really appealed to me in this tweet was the simplicity of the idea. On a personal level I’m growing a little tired of images taken from the concert platform – its all looking a little too familiar now. So, if you’re going to tweet a picture from the stage, ensure there’s something distinctive about it.

This one tells a story – one of pride, enthusiasm, and scale. It has an unwitting message too – many thousands of people will happily sit and listen to an orchestra in the open air. Something to strive for. There’s also something infectious about those smiles.

5. OHPGiovanni / Company Photo

There’s a fine line between insightful backstage photos, and photographic backstage evidence of impenetrable self-absorbed cliques. Opera Holland Park are, thankfully, the correct side of that line.

This shot communicates enthusiasm, warmth, commitment, and excitement. There’s hunger and pride in everyone’s eyes. It is an uplifting sight and, though this may seem a little odd to say, makes me go all warm and fluffy about Opera Holland Park.

The picture humanises a brand. It makes me think they’d want me there as a punter.

6. Stefano Bollani / Concerto Azzurro

I include this tweet because I don’t think it works especially well. I tend to use social media without any headphones – in a quiet moment when I’m bored. I tend not to listen to sound – I’m grazing for content. I’m not inclined to hang around unless there’s something which is hooking me in where I need to see a conclusion.

This video works too slowly, doesn’t communicate very much, and what it does communicate is rather ponderous and pompous in style. It’s the equivalent of the X-Factor-esque titles put on competition shows underpinned with a bass-dominant soundtrack contriving a sense of overblown drama.

OK, that might be going a little too far where Bollani’s gig is concerned. But what I would like to have seen is 15 seconds of some detail of the musician playing, with all of the concert details conveyed in one stab.

Digital doesn’t have time for movie-style openings. If you’re going to use them, then the pay-off better be worth the investment. In all the noise in my feed, I want to feel like someone’s trying to seduce me.

7. St John’s Smith Square / LIACC

I have a soft spot for St John’s Smith Square already – the simplicity of the venue, its authenticity, and its energy all collide into an authentic no-frills concert-going experience that puts the music-making at the heart of its activity.

SJSS use their Instagram feed well, leading on imagery to preview and report on events.

Don Giovanni / Opera Holland Park

A gripping performance of one of Mozart’s darker comic operas, pitching a serial philanderer on a 1920s cruise liner – all very Agatha Christie.

The production succeeded in rooting the plot in amongst our present-day preoccupations showing us an abusive man devoid of little or no personal responsibility.

Don Giovanni is more dark than comic. Violent and abusive, the oily Giovanni (Ashley Riches) was fuelled by a rampant sense of entitlement and a devishly seductive voice.

Donna Elvira (Victoria Simmonds) portrayed a complex character burning with conflicting emotions that at times verged on something desperate. Determined to reveal her lover’s duplicity, Simmonds’ deft depiction saw Elvira move from comedy to pity. By the conclusion of the production the woman looked shattered. Little wonder.

Exquisite duets from Zerlina (Ellie Laugharne) and Masetto (Ian Beadle) in both acts – a pairing who’s counterpoint was beautifully woven with the orchestra’s rich score, offered much-needed hope.

Leporello (John Savournin)  was the stand out star of the production. Giovanni’s sidekick is a demanding role, but Savournin skipped nimbly from feeble obsequiousness to shameful collusion, from one scene to the other.

That Giovanni is the one who gets his come-uppance at the end doesn’t quite ring true in this day and age. Leporello enabled, empowered and apologised for his master’s behaviour. Shouldn’t he have suffered too? One wonders how the man sleeps at night.

Great ensemble from the City of London Sinfonia too, though given that we had a lute play live, I would have thought a harpsichord would have sounded more authentic than the comparatively unconvincing piano during some of the recits.

The set and costume design was polished. The setting too was inspired, making Don Giovanni’s eventual demise plausible and the dead Don Pedro brought back to life an almost forgivable plot point.

OHP 2013: Cavalleria rusticana & Pagliacci

Opera Holland Park’s 2013 season of productions kicked off last night with the customary double-bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.

Rusticana is a bizarre little number. The quaintest of the two melodramas of the evening comprised a philandering soldier, his short-sighted girlfriend and a lot of oranges. The libretto was a pleasant diversion, the endless bars of instrumental scene-setting at the top of opera seem at best over-indulgent.

You have to drink a gin and tonic at Opera Holland Park. It’s the law.

This no doubt presents challenges. What to do with the chorus during the instrumental sections? There’s only so much gesturing a chorus member can do to another before it starts to look like they’re filling time. Dramatic limitations combined with the musical scale of the work made it difficult to invest in the characters, making the synopsis look like something Kensington and Chelsea Trade Descriptions might find of interest.

That’s not to downplay the impressive cast. The small ensemble of soloists maintained their focus and our attention. Former GSMD student and Cardiff Singer of the World participant, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (Santuzza) led the group with a confident, reliable and at times anguished delivery. Peter Auty (philandering Turiddu) got off to a slightly shaky start in the challenging opening bed-scene, but returned full force in the later scenes sited at the front of the stage. A good bunch.

Pagliacci stage set, designed by Stephen Barlow and lit by Mark Jonathan
Pagliacci stage set, designed by Stephen Barlow and lit by Mark Jonathan

Post-interval, with the sun set and the stage resourcefully reconfigured for Pagliacci, the extent to which an ‘open-air’ staging needs good lighting to add depth to the stage and the performers on it became obvious.

Credit to lighting designer Mark Jonathan and designer Yannis Thavoris for the efficient transformation of a dark wall of wooden fruit cases into something vibrant. This offset with performers in all the faded colours of the mid-seventies now favoured by Instagram-loving hipsters made what could have felt as distant as Rusticana suddenly more more present.

Performances from soloists and chorus too were considerably more vital than in comparison Rusticana, in no small part down to the considerably more interesting narrative and musical material.


OHP’s Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci double-bill runs throughout June.