What happens when 8 hip-hop kids are taken to the opera

Michael Volpe of Opera Holland Park took eight inner-city young people to the Royal Opera House to see Toca.

You can watch the outcome here if you’re in the UK, or read about it here anywhere else in the world.

Mike writes: ‘Cultural exploration isn’t just about a teenager from the inner city becoming an opera buff or that opera or theatre per se ‘improves’ him or her as an individual (although it will enrich them). It is time, I believe, to focus not on developing audiences in a one-dimensional way, but that we should focus on social and personal aspiration by using our extraordinary art forms as demonstrations of the capacity people have to look beyond their immediate horizons.

‘I’ve been a little taken aback by some reaction to the concept. I am asked why ‘Hip Hop’ is used in the title, as though we are using it as a euphemism for the colour of the majority of our participants. Hip hop is the cultural reference point for all of them; they chose the title for the film.’

One of the kids says: ‘I’m not gonna cry.’

WARNING: You may be moved.

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    • @ Michael – I just watched the whole clip on YouTube while sipping my morning coffee and was very moved by your film. I loved watching the the behind the scenes moments leading up to the kids’ big night out and their reactions afterwards.

      Many thanks for providing us with such a touching and educational moment.

        • Dear Michael

          Thank you so much for uploading the video for those of us not in the UK. It was marvelous. I did cry as this wonderful adventure that you gave to these kids reminded me of my first time at the opera. I hope to come to Opera Holland Park again – ti’s been a long time since I did that. All the best, Laurie

          • Lairie, thank you very much for taking the time to watch the film and to comment.
            We have been oberwhelmed by the reaction to it.

            M

  • Tremendous work, Michael: not only did you let these young people see themselves in a new context, you proved to us that this art form can be a means for change and personal growth, irrespective of our backgrounds and culture. An inspiring film – thank you!

  • Wonderful young people and a worthwhile film project. I found it especially interesting that they all pretty much agreed on seeing Floria Tosca as the villain of the piece. Much to think about there. Why would they see it that way? Perhaps such a group of inexperienced, yet imaginative and emotionally connected operagoers could come up with a fresh, authentic concept for a new production of one of our overplayed repertoire favorites.

    • Yes, Jane, I found that fascinating too – although whilst I adore the opera, I have very little time for any of the characters. I am often moved by Tosca’s plea but it is never a real heartbreak. I tried to fathom what it was that the kids felt so strongly about. I think it came down to simple moral absolutism and kids’ propensity to simplify and take sides… or perhaps they just saw through her; I do too, I think she really DOES want to sleep with Scarpia and just won’t face it. I guess they aint stupid!

      • Hi again

        I also think they liked Mario and probably liked his idealism. I always found Tosca to be very self absorbed. Scarpia is such a perfect villain! I just loved the part of your programme when they first heard the singer in that gorgeous room. The utter astonishment at the sound. Thanks again.

        Laurie

  • The gender divide is a red herring.
    The class-divide relating to classical music isn’t, and initiatives like this are a step in the right direction.

  • What’s not to like? Really charming bunch of kids, great choice of an opera for first-timers and even better choice of a first up close-range encounter with a bass at full bore! So really, well done Opera Holland Park.

    Of course these sort of exercises are to be applauded, but we must not think, as Michael Volpe indeed alludes to in his closing remarks, that initiatives such as this can ever be a strategy unto themselves. In isolation they might very likely be interpreted as little more than a marketing department charm offensive, one designed merely to give the appearance of making a difference.

    The film opens with these words: “At Opera Holland Park, like most opera companies, we’re obsessed with getting young people into the opera house”. Now, that may very well be true for Opera Holland Park, but it is most emphatically not the case with European Opera Houses as a general rule. This sad reality manifests itself most clearly in the reluctance of the vast majority of houses to regularly present new main-stage works created specifically for the eyes and ears of young people. Wth few exceptions, what should be a priority is being paid lip service, and is seen as a distraction from the main game.

    We can’t just go on forever shrugging off the urgent need to reach new audiences, nor can it be sensibly denied that those new audiences are most reachable when they are very young, but can the current approach be changed without fundamentally changing the entire system? That I doubt, but I would love to be proven wrong!

    • Why do you keep insisting the way to get young people to go to opera is to have new works by contemporary composers. These young people in the film got Tosca as their first opera, which they had never seen before. People who have never seen opera before want “the classics” in timeless productions. Regie-theatre and new pieces by new composers are a salve for the ennui of people who have seen the classics many times before.

      • Glad you brought that up Saxon, you need to re-read what I wrote. It speaks of:

        “the reluctance of the vast majority of houses to regularly present new main-stage works created specifically for the eyes and ears of young people.”

        In other words new work that is written in a musical language that newcomers (and I would add, not just children), can understand and relate to on a deep emotional level.

        We are not going to fix what is broken in this art-form until we have works written in our time that can actually capture hearts and minds the way great works of the past like Tosca have. Until we somehow re-kindle the creative force that drove this art-form to greatness in the first place.

        There is no sensible reason why this should be unachievable.

        • Up to a point….

          It depends whether the works “created specifically for the eyes and ears of young people” are a first step towards the wider repertoire or simply a diversion. A lot of the 19th and early 20th Century stuff is accessible and can draw people in.

          In my – early 1060s – childhood, we learning a couple of songs from ‘Hansel and Gretel’. As nobody told us they were opera, we found them rather fun. My sister’s class learned Papageno’s entrance aria – again not knowing it was Mozart.The word ‘opera’ would have killed the fun.

          By all means use varieties of music for opera – I genuinely like that idea – but don’t assume that the old stuff is out of reach to the young.

          • Oh goodness BJ, do you really think that’s what I’m saying? I love Hansel and Gretel, it’s musically sublime ( although to be frank, lyrically and dramatically pretty staid) but the point is, as a standard repertoire main-stage work for young people it has the field absolutely to itself. There are no other examples, and Hansel and Gretel premiered around 120 years ago.

            We have to urgently face up to the reality that an art-form that doesn’t make it’s top priority growing it’s audience, one that it in broader society is generally perceived as having had the last of it’s best moments well over half a century ago, is an art-form that is on a fundamental level, getting it wrong.This is not rocket science!

        • I think David is saying something that’s so important and obvious that it’s easy for most of us to overlook it, namely the urgent need for new music “created specifically for the eyes and ears of young people.” This does not require jettisoning the forms and harmonic practices of the last four centuries, just letting some fresh air in.

          Look at the tremendous energy of pop music today, even some of rap contains promising elements and seizes fresh venues day after day. Meanwhile look at the libretti of late Italian opera — some or all of the story concerns sex out of marriage after which, to suit convention, the offending heroine must be stabbed, shot, strangled, leap from the castle wall etc etc. That dog stopped hunting almost a hundred years ago.

          Or take Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes & Fugues for Piano Op 87, just as analogy. DS took two centuries of harmonic diversions since the death of Bach, and poured this new wine into the old bottles of the WTC.

          Result? Magic, shaking up both old and new.

          We should be thinking mass appeal, not academic; what’s needed for opera and all the rest too, says I, are composers of the melodic persuasion, today’s gatekeepers can go jump in the river. Jump in the river, please! before it’s too late…

          • I think a few straw men may be creeping in.

            Opera using modern musical forms sounds great to me – but I don’t see it as a panacea for engagement. It risks – at times – being like happy clappy masses where people think they are talking the language of youngsters but miss it by a mile. That’s what I’d want to avoid – so lets look for voices that genuinely talk to teenagers.

            The idea that young people can’t relate to old opera is the one I challenge (in the same way as I get irritated when people make generalisations about Shakespeare being irrelevant to them).

            It’s not binary – we don’t have to chose between 19th Century romanticism and 21st Century gritty realism: we can have both. So can the youngsters. Finally, we can have our cake and eat it.

          • Holy moley BJ I never mentioned new forms, I’m calling for new content, new melodies, new stories. Extended stage plays that are in one way or another Sung Throughout, whether through-composed or with songs, hopefully with an acoustic orchestra but also with that modern chamber organization the rock band. Or some combination.

            This won’t drive out the old, ffs, it will help preserve it.

          • Prokofiev’s 1st Symphony, supposedly a tribute to Haydn. R Strauss’s Oboe and Horn Concertos. None of these could realistically be mistaken for actual classical era works. They are of their time, and we are able to enjoy these works because for various reasons both these composers were fortunate enough to find themselves outside the reach of centralised control.

            In our time we should have long ago moved on from pre-determined notions of what constitutes ‘new’, any musical language should be possible for composers of genuine inspiration, and they should feel able to express themselves freely without having to conform to any kind of external directive. Echoing the thoughts of our esteemed Buxtehude (though of course he would never put it as crudely as have I) the new music police need to just get the *@#% out of the way.

  • David

    Thanks for your comments.

    I hoped I was more explicit in my remarks! Perhaps the accompanying article to the film is clearer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5SP9l5NCBswnym1v0fZmTtS/hip-hop-to-opera-expanding-horizons-through-music

    I most certainly do not think these initiatives are the be all and end all. The problem in the UK and probably elsewhere, is a socially systemic one to do with – in this instance – working class youth, but it applies to great swathes of the adult populaton.

    I have come to believe that our focus should be on using our artform as a tool to encourage people to change their perception of themselves and thus their potential for cultural engagement. For these kids, I used this as a way to demonstrate the possibilities of exploration, more for their lives as productive adults than as audience members. I think if we do this, we get the best of all worlds. It is no good just chucking tickets at them. We need to go deeper.

    • Michael, I very much agree and there is no doubt that as well as being a good news story, this throws out a serious ‘challenge to do better’ for the art-form as a whole.

      One of the first skills that children and young people seem to acquire in our society is an ability to tell adults ‘what it is they think they (the adults) want to hear’. Adults are correspondingly adept at letting the wool be pulled over their eyes in this respect. It’s amazing how many serious planning mistakes are made on the basis of this seemingly innocent deception.

      In this instance however, I think what we are seeing are genuine reactions. You’ve done a great job creating an atmosphere whereby these young people feel no pressure to express themselves in anything other than an open and honest way.

      The challenge then must be for us to learn from them. In doing so we must acknowledge that most of the impediments to bridging the cultural gap are things that we put in place, and indeed these are impediments that many within the art-form actively strive to maintain.

  • Thank you so much for pointing to YouTube. Great to watch. All credit to Michael and I hope the 8 young people do well in their futures.

  • A rewarding half hour – and I’ll like to see more of it. The youngsters were seemed willing to challenge themselves – and that in turn challenges the rest of us. I would have been happy with another half hour of them discussing ‘Tosca’ to see where our views are similar and where they diverge. I’ve never thought of Tosca as a villain before, but I’ve tended to think she’s a self-obsessed idiot – let’s bring those ideas together.

    The aura that surrounds opera is a problem (it’s only recently that I’ve gone to ROH since friends put me off with their stories of corporate junkets) – although I think that is more of a problem in London than the rest of the UK. Lots of opera – especially 19th century – is easily accessible, but it’s the trappings of the opera house that are off-putting.

    Instead of the normal academic-type talking heads introducing opera, it would be good sometimes to have these younger, fresher voices making me look at it in a different way. I’d be really interested to know what this group would make of ‘Don Giovanni’.

    BTW: It would be good if the BBC could find a bit more more for opera and music in the schedules occasionally – we don’t need another cop show about a detective with a difficult family life.

  • David,

    You are correct that these are genuine reactions. I can assure you that these particular kids rarely say what is expected of them!

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