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BWW Interview: Opera Holland Park's James Clutton Talks Programming During The Pandemic


The head of Opera Holland Park on Coronavirus restrictions and plans for 2021

BWW Interview: Opera Holland Park's James Clutton Talks Programming During The Pandemic
James Clutton

Opera Holland Park unfortunately couldn't proceed with its planned 2020 summer season, but this very special venue was among the first to leap into action with a series of open-air concerts instead - from all-star operatic galas to a dash of musical theatre with Sondheim's A Little Night Music (read our review here).

James Clutton, Director of Opera at OHP, tells BroadwayWorld about how they made the shows work with Covid-19 safety measures, why opera is for all, and his hopes for returning at full strength in 2021.

Can you take us back to March - when did you realise that Coronavirus measures would have such a huge impact on the upcoming OHP season?

We had obviously been monitoring the situation and looking at alternative plans but then things started moving very quickly, as everyone knows. We were making plans but as I have described it before, it was like writing on water. As soon as you had finished, the shape changed and you had to start again.

One of the biggest single issues for us was that our theatre is temporary and has to be built every year. We were due to start building mid-March, and once that large financial commitment had been made, it was going to be very hard for us.

We had an outreach tour on at the time - taking a reduced performance of The Pirates of Penzance to schools all the way from our theatre to Penzance itself. Whilst it was a joyous tour, you could feel the mood changing between all of the team and at the places we were visiting.

With great regret, I pulled that tour and got everyone back from Cornwall to London. But we were still hoping against everything that the main season would still go ahead. Then you just felt the mood change, and what seemed like a decision soon became inevitable and no decision at all.

How long did it take to dismantle it all - cancelling shows, informing performers and audiences etc.?

We had to move quickly, as no one wants to hear substantially later than anyone else. So it was all on one day - across a few hours, really. I spoke to all of the artistic teams and a lot of the singers personally. I just felt that was what I needed to do, but time started running out and we had to get a press release out, so the Opera Holland Park production team also started to contact people too, to make sure we had contacted everyone before it went public. Then we let our supporters know, but that also had to be timed exactly, to fit in with the press release. And at the agreed time, which was 5pm on the 19 March, we put it out publicly on social media etc.

BWW Interview: Opera Holland Park's James Clutton Talks Programming During The Pandemic
Anush Hovhannisyan performs at the
OHP's Encore concert in August

Did most of the OHP team go on furlough in the meantime?

As soon as the furlough scheme was launched, we had to make use of it. Not immediately, but nearly everyone in the fulltime OHP team was on furlough at some point. Of the whole team, only our Ticketing and Box Office Manager Doug (who was busy with refunds etc.) and I were not on furlough at any point.

When did you start thinking about introducing these fantastic one-off concerts?

The moment we had to cancel the season, I was already thinking of how to get us back doing something. It was all about thinking through possible projects and then being ready to implement them as and when the time came. But I think probably at about 5.15pm on 19 March!

Did you have to allay performers' concerns at all, or were most people eager to come back?

They were very eager to get back to performing, but hopefully we had allayed fears before they needed to ask us. Our first priority, now and always, is safety: safety for the audiences, the performers, the home team. So we had all put a lot of work in to ensure everyone's safety, and that paid off with people trusting us.

Audiences too - did people contact you with safety questions? And is that possible anxiety a long-term issue?

Well, as I say, safety is our number one priority. So we looked at it from all angles. What would we expect from a host company? Looking at as many issues as we could, and making sure we told people in advance what plans we had put in place.

Talk us through the safety measures you had to introduce at OHP: how long that took, and how expensive or challenging it was

Most of the measures we put in place are well known and documented now through sites for restaurants, offices and theatres. But at the time we started, being among the first to produce any concerts, we were really having to think things through and go over things again and again.

BWW Interview: Opera Holland Park's James Clutton Talks Programming During The Pandemic
Anna Patalong and Ross Ramgobin
introduce hand sanitiser to Don
at OHP's The Encore concert

Our measures included no paper tickets and no paper programmes; no interval, to reduce the amount of times audiences would be close to each other; 1.5 metre spacing between audience seats; social distancing between the orchestral musicians and singers. We originally started with 10 metres between the singers and the audience but over time we were able to reduce that, very carefully.

We didn't use dressing rooms at all for these concerts to avoid artists having to be too close to each other. All of our staff were wearing masks throughout, encouraging audiences to wear masks. New pedal sanitiser dispensers were put in place near the entrances. Seat numbers were displayed on the back of seats to make it easier for audience to see and access their seats. And we sanitised all of the seats prior to an audience member sitting down.

Were you worried at all about how changing Government strategies might affect your plans?

I tend not to worry about things I can't control. I really focus on things I can control. But we had war-gamed various outcomes and changes to the law to see what we could achieve if certain things happened. We were prepared to change if needed.

How did it feel at that first show - seeing performers and audience back in the same space at OHP?

All of the performances this summer were very special, but that first one was just incredible: so emotional for us as a team, the performers and the audience. A genuine sense of a shared moment and community. And sheer joy at performing again or being at a performance again. It was food for the soul hearing that music soar across Holland Park.

A Little Night Music was a huge success, selling out in six minutes! Any plans to do more musicals like that in future?

Yes, it was a great success. Maybe. Who knows at the moment. Certainly musicals like ALNM would always be considered, as it is very operatic in its tone and structure.

BWW Interview: Opera Holland Park's James Clutton Talks Programming During The Pandemic
Laura Pitt-Pulford braves the downpour
during A Little Night Music at OHP

Obviously the British weather is a major challenge for open-air performances - do you think it's practical to do shows like this long-term? Or is it more of a scratch measure for this year?

Sure, but my friend Tim Sheader at Regent's Park does very well! No, for us it was just for this year in that form, I think. Even if we have to plan in a different way next year, I am sure we would have the usual OHP canopy up at the least.

If you did have your big marquee up as usual, does that make a difference in terms of Government regulations? Does it count as indoor instead?

No, it would be classed as outdoors. Which I think will be a massive plus for the public looking at buying tickets.

The Government seems particularly concerned about singing as a transmission risk. Do you think that's understandable, and is there an easy fix with opera?

They were, but I think that concern is reducing now. It was fair enough to be safety-conscious, but I think more research has shown singing not to be the risk it was at first believed to be. Of course, as things have traditionally been, it is an issue, but we are a creative industry. We have to work out ways around that and we will.

Ditto having a full orchestra?

Yes, same again. But there are a lot of excellent reduced editions and I think that producers, managements and audiences just have to think differently for a while.

How is OHP doing financially at the moment, and are you applying for the rescue package?

We are working hard to make sure that we're OK. Our supporters who bought tickets and then donated the seat price to us in the immediate aftermath of the cancellation really helped us. The support was amazing. We have to build on that and continue to act with the right mix of caution and bravery to plot our path out of this situation. Always looking at the future of the company and keeping that as secure as we can make it.

We will not be applying for the rescue package.

BWW Interview: Opera Holland Park's James Clutton Talks Programming During The Pandemic
Young audience members delighted to
attend The Pirates' Return at OHP

Are you planning at all for next season? If not, when's the latest you could start organising full shows for 2021?

Well, I have been working on shows for 2021 for about 18 months, but we are having to look at a lot of different options, of course. But we will be producing the four operas we had originally planned for 2021.

Do you feel the Government is being particularly hard on the arts as a sector?

It's not so much that I think they have been particularly hard on the sector, although the industry has been devastated by this. It's more the result of a long-term disinterest. The cultivation of it being fashionable or clever to dismiss the arts, to embolden the belief that the arts are not for all, the refusal to put the arts at the centre of a civilised nation as a pillar of a civilised society alongside things like an education system and the health system. This is why the industry has been so badly hit - because of this neglect and the lack of urgency and desire to remedy it.

Finally, OHP is such a special venue. What are your favourite memories from past years - the kinds of moments that inspire you to get shows going again as soon as possible?

I have thousands of glorious memories of times at Opera Holland Park - a real kaleidoscope. But the audience reaction at the end of our first schools matinee in 2018 - a performance of La traviata, where we had a thousand school children screaming like they were at a pop concert - will take some beating. It exemplified everything we had been looking at over so many years.

Find out more about Opera Holland Park and how to support its work here

Photo credit: Danny Kaan, Ali Wright

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