When is it ever appropriate to proscribe the cultural experience of others? I don’t mean, to suggest, or recommend something warmly to a friend, but shamelessly and without inhibition control and filter what others consume? For example, how can an airline edit every single swear word out of Martin McDonagh’s ‘Three Billboards..’ and still think it worth showing?
I am pondering this very question as I sit, shivering with irritation, crushed by the idea that the coming meal will be even less tolerable now that Frances McDormand has been shorn of her c∗∗∗s (see?) and fucks. I’m reminded of stories in which the old board of film control – the censor – would send politely absurd letters suggesting cuts to films; ‘We believe the use of ‘bollocks’ serves no useful purpose and have removed it.’ But this airline has removed every single swear word from McDonagh’s film and in its jump-cut absurdity I was forced to turn it off after two minutes. I doubt it went on for much longer than that anyway, given what I know about the film. If this is about children on a flight then I suggest they don’t offer it in the first place.
Telling people what they can and cannot enjoy culturally is something I have spent many years trying to combat. Censorship of art itself is quite another matter of course, yet a different form of cultural censorship occurs in the UK – particularly with young, working class people. It essentially cordons off areas of our arts landscape and embellishes its narrative with monstrous assumptions. ‘Working class people feel uncomfortable at the opera’ etc. Our recent film, ‘Hip Hop to Opera’ proved in a profound way that the most unexpected people (South London teenagers raised on Hip Hop, RnB, Grime and Drill) connect with art-forms they might never have considered before they were offered the chance.
It works across the board too, these cultural silos. I know plenty of people who love a bit of opera with their soul and reggae but it isn’t common. I have just done a jazzy remix of an RnB song by my son’s band ‘Fortune’ (and bloody good it is too) but it’s never felt odd being an opera manager as well as someone who writes jazz/dance/funk music on the side. And this is what I tell young people as they drill and grime their way through life, thinking the classical world is for aliens. Opera fans can also see the rest of the musical landscape as Martian, too, but, despite the work we all do in outreach, we don’t seem to be making any headway in this conversation, do we? I had to argue in the Daily Telegraph earlier this week about yet another ‘posh’ trope trotted out by someone.
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We are in New York, fresh from our win in the International Opera Awards where Opera Holland Park picked up the Outreach and Education gong. But OHP continues to be a touchstone for some in the political arena who think there is a ‘right kind of art’ and a ‘wrong kind of art’.
Perhaps only the UK could caricature certain creative enterprises as epitomising the divisions and injustices in our society, whilst other forms are the ones we should impose upon our population, even though those attacking us don’t appear to even know of the work we do with communities. I am close to conceding that, after nearly three decades of trying to resist this narrative, I should just give it up and stop worrying about it. If our education system doesn’t feel it necessary to broaden the horizons of young people, if the general population are happy to continue to think of opera and the classical arts as ‘not for them’ (or people claiming to represent them determine that is the case), well, I suppose I shouldn’t try too hard henceforth to change it. It’s tiring and we can’t do it alone.
The reason for our trip to NY is to explore the technical and logistical issues around our co-production of Mascagni’s Isabeau which we open in July at Holland Park and which comes to New York in 2019. Working with other companies is a developing thread in our work – this is the third such project after collaborations with Danish National Opera and Scottish Opera. Back home, our focus is on building the theatre – still a monumental and complex exercise that we have down to a fine art. Seeing the wonderful flexibility and facilities of the Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Centre makes me just a bit envious. On the other hand, the mastery of our environment has had a big part to play in the quality and impact of our staged material – so there is a quid pro quo at work…
Michael Volpe is General Director of Opera Holland Park