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Michael Volpe

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To Them All We Must Give Applause

Posted: 01/12/2012 09:38

We are all, in some way, self-regarding in the arts world. Those who tread a stage (particularly, in my opinion, an opera stage) have to be self-absorbed in many respects for theirs is a job of monumental difficulty; it is to their inner core that they must turn in order to dredge up the emotions that audiences wish to see laid bare. And those of us who engage the performers and the directors and conductors who, through their vision and creative talent, give singers the means to project themselves into our collective psyche, are prone (not unreasonably) to bask in the warm glow they produce.

The reward given by an audience to a performer - their applause, their emotional outpouring - is a fleeting but pungent one. I can never, even as I approach my 24th season at Holland Park, claim a reward as profound as that and the pleasure is - can only be - drawn from its facilitation. That is not, I hasten to add, a derogation of that duty, for arts companies have in their service countless individuals whose contribution is as critical and as potent as the delivery of a role in the Puccini canon. It is just that whatever glittering prize we are offered, whatever we ourselves may wish to perceive of our part in the process, it will never quite deliver the adulation received by those whose talent we press into our service. Quiet contentment should indeed be reward enough.

The arts industry is, especially today, awash with the cult of personality. Too often the focus is drawn to the people at the top, or the PR stunts that propel them onto a few thousand twitter feeds and by which an industry appears to now be judged, diverting the issues or introducing unnecessary ones.

Social media has given all of us the chance to blow furiously into our trumpets and the "cleverness" urged by executives too frequently overshadows everybody whose talent is engaged and now it seems arts companies congratulate themselves most lavishly for the message rather than the work being produced. I recently spoke with an internationally acclaimed singer who has withdrawn from social media as a result of it all. But whilst those who create the actual art retain a presence (unavoidable to some extent) the recognition rarely goes further. Beyond the performer there is the technician, the operative who creates a space for wonder to take flight, the fundraiser, or the hard worked marketer who juggles vainly to lend credibility to the schoolboy pranks that pass for a corporate message who are frequently overlooked and put into folders of less significant binding.

We are all prone to this self grandeur. We all like to be praised and admired, to be shaken vigorously by the hand as an enthused audience member congratulates us or when journalists wax lyrical in praise of the company's achievements. But our real challenge is no more than to keep explaining our vision, to ensure its sustainability and to provide the environment for talent to flourish. Every bus needs a driver for sure; in the arts world, clever, creative people need managing, but those who built the bus, maintain it and make it tick should always be valued highly too.

When I went on stage at the final performance of the 2012 season for our traditional thanksgiving ritual, it was Julia, my colleague, at whom I felt compelled to fling most praise. To the singers and members of the orchestra I of course made admiring reference and the audience had roared its approval only moments before my eulogy anyway. But no matter how many weird and wonderful operas I pursue, strategies I write, money I squeeze from willing pockets or arguments I may have with critics or the unimpressed, the graft of people like Julia is the lifeblood of the company. So is that of our operations manager, our production staff, our front of house team, our Friends, our box office operatives, our volunteers and many others besides. We simply do not exist without them.

In truth, they are all sheltered beneath the same creative bell jar, no matter what the job or status of an individual. They serve and support the product that brought us all together in the first place. If managers and leaders of arts companies don't recognise that we will have nothing to feel smug about as the souls of our companies are reduced to empty, tattered shells. Far too many people working in the industry tell me - often tearfully - stories of rampant management megalomania, of trite, pretentious theories and withering insecurities and bullying dressed up as leadership. I confess that I blanche at their stories, wondering if I do the same things.

The arts need to return to those who create it, to those who make it work, who serve it and tip themselves headlong and unselfishly into making it happen because when the wolves come calling, as they invariably do from time to time, we shall have nobody willing to stand in their way. They will have all left to do something else. I feel entitled to feel pride in having been present at the birth of our company but the thousands of people who support us don't leave our theatre thinking of me but of those who have thrilled them, hosted them, served them drinks, shown them to their seats and encountered them through their experience from the moment they booked a ticket. It is easy to forget that when those ebullient handshakes go on and on but we do so at our peril.

 

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