Digging up gems
After seven successful years as chief executive of Orchestras Live, the orchestra development agency, Henry Little, once the Arts Council’s director of music strategy, has moved to become head of Opera Rara – “rare opera”
What is Opera Rara?
Opera Rara is much more than just a recording company – we see ourselves as a centre of academic and performing (through both our recordings and live performances) excellence whose mission is to recover and restore unjustly forgotten operas of the 19th-century with the best possible operatic talent out there today.
A great deal of painstaking effort goes into the identification and resurrection of these unfairly neglected masterworks which we believe will resonate with contemporary audiences. Led by our artistic director, Sir Mark Elder, and repertoire consultant, Professor Roger Parker, Opera Rara is fortunate enough to have an extensive team of musicological experts who help us breathe new life into these rare operas.
We have been at the forefront of operatic archaeology for more than 40 years, seeking not only to add to the current musical knowledge and understanding of these great works as well as the composers who wrote them, but also to preserve these pieces for posterity through our studio recordings and the new performing and critical editions we create.
Our patron Renée Fleming made her first ever recording with us and the careers of numerous other well-known artists have been nurtured by Opera Rara including Bruce Ford, Nelly Miricioiu, Carmen Giannattasio and Daniella Barcelona.
Where and how often does the company perform, and what will be the next production?
We undertake two major projects each year consisting of a studio recording followed by a live concert performance. Currently we present our concerts either at the Barbican or Royal Festival Hall in London. Our next project will be Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, written while the composer was still a student in Naples, at the Barbican on May 11.
Why did you decide to leave a national role to take this on?
I’d worked for nearly eight years at Orchestras Live during which time we established ourselves as a leading force in the UK orchestral sector. When I heard about the opportunity to lead Opera Rara, I jumped at the chance because I was keen to return to the coal face of making great operatic work that can speak powerfully to audiences today.
Is the audience growing for rare 19th century opera, and what about opera in general?
The operatic repertory has expanded hugely over the last 50 years. Handel’s operas were unheard for nearly 200 years but are now regularly performed at opera houses throughout the world. The most remarkable “opera renaissance” in the last 50 years, however is the rediscovery of the Italian bel canto repertory. Only a small handful of operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and early Verdi were known right up until the Second World War but there is now a much greater awareness of the breadth of their work thanks, in part, to the key role Opera Rara has played in this renaissance. Our recordings and performances of 53 complete operas to date by composers such as Donizetti, Pacini and Mercadante have contributed to a fundamental revaluation of these works and their place in today’s operatic repertory.
Our most recent project was the recording and live performance of Leoncavallo’s Zazà which premiered in 1900. Zazà played to an almost capacity audience at the Barbican and among many positive reviews was described as ‘a knock out’ by The Guardian. A big part of our work is to engage modern audiences with these rare operas by working with the very best singers, conductors and orchestras in the world.
At Orchestras Live your task was to get classical music to audiences in areas where they find it hard to access it. How successful were you?
In my last full year at Orchestras Live, we delivered more than 450 concerts and projects by 26 British orchestras that reached nearly 60,000 people. All of those people did not have easy access to orchestral work and many of them were experiencing the thrilling power of a live orchestra for the first time. Orchestras Live leads some 88 relationships between orchestras and venues taking great British orchestras to 154 venues, all of whom rely on Orchestras Live to deliver their orchestral programmes.
Is the same being done for opera?
Orchestras Live is unique, not only in the UK, but internationally as well. That’s not to say that there aren’t powerful examples of taking great opera to a wider audience in innovative ways. Since 1992, Birmingham Opera Company has created ground-breaking site specific opera productions, rooted in the diverse communities of Birmingham, which have rewritten the conventions of how opera engages with a new public. Elsewhere, the Opera Platform is a pioneering digital partnership between fifteen opera houses in Europe led by the Opera Europa network, which streams a wide range of productions online reaching those who already love opera and those who may be tempted to try it (for free) for the first time.
How is Opera Rara funded?
All the money we need for our projects has to be raised through donations. We rely on the generosity of many individual funders as well as private charitable foundations that support our mission to bring these wonderful but neglected works to life. Although we’re not regularly funded by Arts Council England, it has generously supported us in the past and we aim to make a compelling case for it to continue to do so in future.
Opera has recently come under attack as a minority enthusiasm that does not deserve subsidy. Having moved from the public to the private sector, do you agree?
You won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t agree! The idea of there being a boundary between the public and private sector is false and although Opera Rara isn’t currently publicly funded, like other opera companies in the private sector, it relies upon a healthy publicly funded sector to thrive.
Colm Tóibin once described opera as “Europe’s hidden nervous system” and “a sign of our great and shared heritage as Europeans”. The opera ecology in the UK benefits from a strong relationship between public and private investment and it is vital that both parties recognise their shared responsibility for its vibrant future.
Opera Rara is now over 40. How do you plan to develop?
Like Orchestras Live, I see the future of Opera Rara as one of cultivating and developing partnerships. We already have a great track record of orchestral partnerships, including with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Hallé.
Going forward, I want to collaborate with opera houses both in the UK and internationally where we could bring our unique projects to new audiences. We have some exciting co-production plans in the pipeline for 2018 and we want to expand on those in the future. I believe there are also relationships to be made with conservatoires, developing the next generation of singers in this repertory. We also want our extraordinary music library, which houses an extensive collection of Italian and French opera scores as well as prints and memorabilia, to be made available to many more people.