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The Common aversion

 A version of this (updated) article first appeared in The Culture Section of The Sunday Times 1/3/2014

In reflecting on the course of my own life, I frequently conclude that I was only ever a heartbeat from catastrophe and that by arriving here, in the arts, a miracle of both fate and imposture has occurred.  My childhood in Fulham, the youngest of four sons in a broke and broken Italian family, wasn't a recipe for success and one particular event suggested where my life could eventually end up, depending on what road was taken.  Returning to my estate one afternoon at the age of just ten years old,  a large noisy crowd had gathered between the flower beds and at the heart of this tumult, in what my memory recalls as a cloud of dust, perms and expletives was my mother, clawing, scratching and slapping furiously at another woman. 

"I willa fucky killa you!" screamed my Mum.  "My son issa NOT inna fucky borstal!" The woman had made the mistake of suggesting that my brother, who had been sent to a unique and brilliant school, Woolverstone Hall (and where I was about to join him), was, merely by dint that he slept there, in a borstal.  The woman was whimpering as my mother snarled, "not dissa one anyway!" Another brother was indeed enjoying Her Majesty's pleasure at that time but facts are facts and those said that Woolverstone Hall was about to offer her two youngest sons an unimaginable chance to achieve wonderful things. Woolverstone, an ILEA boarding school in Suffolk, had a simple premise at its heart; it took bright inner city boys and gave them an Eton style education.

As summer approaches, the UK begins to unfurl its cultural wings in the guise of several events and festivals.  Our own contribution, Opera Holland Park, proclaims its credentials as the finest example of 'opera for all' and I am confident we have a right to make the claim with thousands of tickets free or at just £15. Yet I cannot help think that years of banging this drum isn't making much difference to a great swathe of the population and it isn't the much maligned "toffs" who are causing the problem; it is the rest of us.

Today, we say a lot about giving everybody opportunities - but nowhere with Woolverstone's aspiration exists any longer, not in the way of directly challenging the stereotype. And a huge part of that aspiration targeted our cultural experience, shoehorning theatre and music into every crevice of our lives and the school put culture right up there alongside academia as a crucial part of life's necessities. There was no half-arsed watering down in order to make it 'easier' for us to understand, so we studied Chaucer in middle English, we performed Shakespeare, we sang Handel and Haydn and we ran rock concerts covering Beatles songs. A long list of productions includes Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Mozart's The Magic Flute, Verdi's Requiem, Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors and Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado. In one year alone, the school mounted productions of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage, Smetana's The Bartered Bride and George Bernard Shaw's play of Androcles and the Lion. We rose to the challenge, just as the school's founders said we would and very soon we saw little distinction between art forms beyond what was good or what we liked because we learned to tell the difference. This was all put, undiluted, before rough-edged kids from Fulham, Streatham, Brixton, whose families were usually fractured, their lives sometimes nightmarishly challenging. 

The increasingly horrific digitisation of our cultural world is a clear conspirator when it comes to keeping us out of the real-world emotional group hugs found in theatres and opera houses. But it is also the failure of our education system over decades to not just expose people to the arts but to also drive home the idea that whether you can enjoy the visceral, three dimensional experience of a live theatrical performance has nothing to do with social class; we just haven't taken a thorough enough approach to making sure culture is not put into boxes. Many people I grew up with have reached the age of fifty having never entered a theatre, have no concept of what lies behind the doors of one or the experiences to be found there. It is an alien world, dressed it would seem in black tie and tails and the stereotype is nourished and fed in a terrible cycle of parody that goes hand in hand with our constant efforts to change the status quo. 

In the basket of tools that the opera world uses to address the problem are cheap tickets, cinema broadcasts, big screen picnics, "controversial" twitter campaigns, "sexy" productions, pop composers et al. It is both brilliant stuff and risible guff, usually well meant and costly too.  Popular media doesn't help by presenting programmes in which people try to be opera singers surrounded by crushed velvet or make stars of people who really can't sing (but who at least show us that there is a huge natural capacity within the general population for operatic music). And why on earth would a newspaper, reporting on Streetwise opera's work with ROH headline  it as the homeless sticking it to the "snobs", as though they had invaded the production of Carmelites against the will of the house?

People everywhere are usually melodramatic creatures, especially sports and football fans; broadcasters have realised this and embellish films and programmes about sport with lachrymose (often classical) music; people have always understood how music ratchets up the emotional impact of the drama before us and this is all opera does in truth, but I still hear people I know speak of their own inability to enjoy the "higher" arts. When did we become so brazenly self-defeating as a cultural nation? Why has the concept that your class and background determine what you can enjoy flourished?

So as we launch our season on June 3rd, we will hope that we can encourage the banker, the builder, the nurse and everybody in between to try something purely because it will enrich them emotionally. A season that features Puccini, Bellini and Rossini is in the very least suffused with gorgeous music but the drama, the extraordinary human feats that emerge on-stage before our very eyes, in real time - well, those are the things that so heartbreakingly many have yet to usher into their lives. These are often the same people who cry watching Eastenders or blub like babies at videos of Chelsea winning the Champions League. They'd do the same when Adriana, having received a bouquet of poisoned violets, "sniffs it, snuffs it", as Sir Denis Foreman so colourfully reported; they'd be crushed by Norma's great lament and sobs would come when Minnie finds bittersweet redemption (they always do for me). Human nature and evolution doesn't have a trust fund or a large country estate and all human experience is here, on stage, non-digital, without class distinctions; it is that bloody simple.


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