James Clutton says supporters have stood by cultural organisations through the toughest of times. They deserve transparency, care and as much opportunity to engage as possible.
Many readers will recognise it is much easier to programme a season than de-programme it. At Opera Holland Park we furloughed as many staff as we could spare, worked from home, and used Zoom to stay connected to our creatives, crew and audiences. Long-held plans to increase our digital output became a matter of urgency. We learned new skills at speed while focusing on returning to live performance as soon as guidelines allowed. What have we learned? A great deal.
On 19 March last year we announced the Opera Holland Park 2020 season would not take place. The severity of the situation the industry was facing had rapidly become clear and we knew we had to act before the annual theatre build began. Our priority was contacting all the freelancers involved before making anything public; we had too many close friends and colleagues who learned of cancelled contracts from press releases. Transparency and open dialogue have always been crucial to our relationships. This baseline of trust continues to be a central thread in our communications. The maxim that we are not defined by a building but by our people has held true. We were also very mindful of the impact on our members and supporters and have held them close throughout the year.
When restrictions lifted last summer we held a handful of socially distanced events on the site where our theatre normally stands. We started with a live recording session on 4 July followed by another five outdoor events, including a family friendly performance of The Pirates of Penzance. These outdoor performances employed various freelancers, generated positive press coverage and helped show the resilience of our company by getting us back in front of an audience again.
As an independent charity with no public subsidy or headline corporate sponsorship we studied the eligibility criteria for the Creative Recovery Fund grants very carefully. We concluded that we should not apply. There is much to be said for independence.
Reach out however you can
Our focus on digital has bolstered our outreach and education work. On May 23, we held a Virtual Open Day with interactive online workshops, music and activities from dance classes to panel discussions. In June, we premiered our 2019 film production of Un ballo in Maschera on what would have been the opening week of the season. Starting at 7.30pm with an interval and downloadable programme books, the intention was to recapture the live experience as far as possible. The reaction was excellent, viewing figures were excellent and the evening offered another opportunity to connect with our supporters. We’ve held a filmed Christmas concert, a Holocaust Memorial Day performance, online music lessons and family workshops since.
We have worked with the designer takis to reimagine our theatre to combine safe social distancing for audiences, artists and backstage and front of house staff with a fresh, contemporary look that capitalises on the beauty of Holland Park. We’ve set our capacity for this year at 400 – a 60% reduction from the old grandstand. Individual seats can be grouped according to the size of household bubbles. We have taken our members and supporters through the evolution of the designs, from how we will ensure a safe environment for artists and staff members, many of whom are too young to have received even the first shot of a vaccine, to the use of sustainable and recycled materials. People’s faith in us has been demonstrated through record levels of individual donation and sponsorship, purchased tickets for our 2021 season of five operas, and in the support for our SOS Campaign, designed to offset the 600 missing seats at each performance.
A key point in our planning was retaining the same percentage of free and accessible tickets. We have introduced four discovery matinees to welcome families and first-time opera audiences to relaxed performances. We have also doubled the number of schools matinees young artists performances.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of our young artists scheme and the silver jubilee of Opera Holland Park. We intend to celebrate – safely.
The Covid safety protocol will be a challenge but it is a challenge we are ready to tackle. By ‘we’ I don’t just mean professionals; I mean the audience. It has become normal to assume opera audiences are resistant to change, stuck in their ways, too reluctant to embrace the risk of attending theatres that we now all face. My experience is that this is not true.
As the annual build of our theatre begins, I am optimistic that the trauma of the last year has created an opportunity to rebalance and reimagine our work, making it stronger, brighter and a more immediate theatrical experience than ever. Don’t take your supporters for granted: they stood by us before and are standing by us now.
James Clutton is CEO and Director at Opera Holland Park