If Opera: setting the tone for summer

We’re counting down to the summer season at If Opera: expect a gothic thriller with ghostly apparitions, gorgeous melodies and stirring waltzes, and a hilarious twist on a fairy-tale classic. We hear from If Opera’s Michael Volpe and Oliver Gooch.

Michael Volpe OBE, Executive Director
If Opera has been on quite a journey since it first formed. How do you look back on its development?
Artistically we have produced some fantastic work during our two seasons as If Opera and have really changed the perception of the company among longer-term patrons. Financially, things are tough for everybody in the opera and arts world, but our audiences are growing with hundreds of new patrons and ambitions to expand the repertoire.

If Opera aims to improve the way opera works – why is this important?
We need to regularise the industry so that more opera can be performed to a high-level right across the country in many communities. This is how we will build new audiences – by making it accessible and ‘local’.
We also have very strong policies on things that bother singers a great deal: bullying, feeling afraid to speak their mind for fear of being thought of as ‘trouble’, and sexual harassment, still an issue for many singers.

If Opera uses a repertory ensemble cast. Why do you use this model?
Opera is inherently expensive given the numbers of people involved, but also important is the way singers and other artistic and technical personnel fit into the company. The lives of artists can be incredibly precarious with long periods of low income. We want to try to return to the old days of repertory ensembles where singers can consider a career in opera as a reasonable ambition – and not to worry that they are considered failures if they do not work in the big houses.
There are fantastic singers who never get that chance, so we aim for a model that provides well-paid, regular work. It also gives the opportunity to perform different roles and the chance to sing challenging parts.

Tell us about your projects that connect to the local community.

Our art form is a very powerful tool – if we work with SEND (Special Education Needs and Disabilities) children, you will find that very withdrawn children will become expressive and engaged when singing or performing. The same is true of isolated, elderly dementia patients. We want to contribute to the enrichment of lives with our art.

Why is it important to make connections to younger audiences and those less familiar with opera?
When I was at Opera Holland Park, I made a film with eight inner city teenagers called Hip Hop to Opera. We took them to the Royal Opera House to see a production of Tosca and got their reactions. It was a remarkable outcome and you can see the film on YouTube. What is most important was not so much that they really loved the show, but it gave them a searing example of how they can change their own perception of themselves, opened their minds and showed the possibilities of confidently entering environments they would ordinarily reject. Getting young people engaged with all arts, not just classical, is crucial to learning, to confidence, to emotional intelligence – and of course, they become our audience of the future.

You say that If Opera is much more than the show – what does this mean?
It is about the whole culture of the company, of the festival itself, the atmosphere, our contribution to changing the system for artists, about how we propose our art form to people as not just entertainment for a summer’s evening but also about how experiencing drama and music can impact on their own emotional wellbeing.

Oliver Gooch, Artistic Director
How do you develop the programme of opera each year?
Michael Volpe and I always start from a standpoint of what repertoire we would like to do. We then compare notes and see if we have much crossover. Fortunately, we do! We both have repertoire we would like to stage (I’d kill to conduct a Don Carlos!) but it is critical to choose the right combination of operas to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.
Michael is a great advocate for the big romantic ‘stab and sob’ verismo repertoire which can appeal brilliantly to first-timers. Our production of Giordano’s Fedora last year was an exciting one, especially as the last time it had been staged in the UK was nearly 20 years ago.
My artistic plan is to present operas from different repertories and styles – ideally a romantic offering contrasted with a comic opera/operetta alongside a Baroque opera with period instruments. That’s not to say we would ignore the masterpieces of Mozart, Janáček, Britten, Monteverdi and so on, but we need to choose repertoire that serves not only our audience but also gives our repertory singers an opportunity to shine.

What are some of the more challenging logistics of the festival?
Not having a permanent home is a joy and curse in equal measure! It is expensive creating a purpose-built venue each year – but the challenge also brings great opportunity to be innovative. Does opera need to be set in ‘proscenium arch’, with grand, theatrical gesture? Having spent nearly 30 years presenting operas in a cloister, I know that there is a place for the artform which is more intimate in scope, almost as if the audiences are watching through a narrow lens, even participating, as voyeurs.

Is there one production that you are especially looking forward to?
It has to be Lucia. I have long wanted to work with director Thomas Guthrie and this seems the perfect opera for a collaboration. It has everything you want – love, lust, betrayal, intrigue and a smattering of madness! The famous Mad Scene would be one of my Desert Island Discs, and I am especially excited to have one of the world’s foremost glass harmonica players joining us for the famous cadenza. It never fails to stir audiences. Interestingly, the association of madness with the glass harmonica actually stems from the players themselves who, in the 18th century, went a bit loopy from the constant moistening of their fingers on lead-rimmed glasses!

Oliver Gooch on the 2024 programme
“This year, we return to a classic of the bel canto repertoire, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor alongside Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus (otherwise known as ‘The Bat’). I try and cater for all tastes in programming – the fiery romantic tale of Lucia, with all its intrigue and Gothic horror, makes the perfect contrast to the Waltz King himself, Johann Strauss II. It’s arguably the finest piece of operetta ever written and with its slick translation by John Mortimer, our audiences will be able to follow every twist and turn of this crazy tale.
“Finding and nurturing new audience is also central to our ethos and each year we present a work for audiences of all ages. This year, it is a narrated concert of Little Red Riding Hood set to music by Paul Patterson, which includes a dastardly wolf who enjoys the odd tipple! Our mission is to present music in extraordinary places and Belcombe Court is certainly that – in many ways, walking around Belcombe Court makes you feel as though you are on an opera set!”

Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetana Donizetti – 23, 27, 29, 31 August
Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss – II 24, 28 August
Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood, Children’s concert – 25 August
If Opera picnic prom. The James Taylor Quartet, – 26 August
All performances at Belcombe Court, Bradford on Avon.

For further details see: ifopera.com