From the sylvan glades of Holland Park a mile away Grenfell Tower isn’t visible. Last week, though, it was by the black pall that besmirched the blue horizon, but otherwise the park and it activities are a world away from the horror billowing to the north-east. Or so we are led to believe.
The scandal of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s stewardship of its council housing is unfolding, and at the heart of it, naturally, is the council leader, the hapless Nick Paget-Brown. Yesterday The Times did a thorough demolition job on him and the council’s hidden wealth.
In the course of its piece the author, the paper’s investigations reporter Alex Mostrous, dragged into it one of the activities in the council-owned park, Opera Holland Park, the annual festival that is now half way through its 2017 programme. The piece suggests that the council’s profligacy is exemplified by its funding of the festival. It “has picnic hampers for sale at £265. It takes place in Holland Park, a green space whose neighbours include some of the country’s richest people, such as David Beckham.
“In 2015-16 the council lost £1.5 million on staffing and operating the opera, its accounts show. In 2014-15 it lost £1 million… Such projects are effectively subsidised by surpluses built up in other areas, including social housing”.
But it’s not true. Opera Holland Park has been an independent charity since 2015, separate from RBKC since October 2015 when the council off-loaded it, along with the staff, because of increasing pressures on council funding. It hasn’t received any money from the council since then, but is blessed by Investec sponsorship.
It may be a mile away but OHP is directly affected. Several of the staff live in North Kensington, and at least one is missing in the fire.
But The Times has fallen into the old prejudice that opera means elitism, and has made the cardinal error of taking received information and turning it to serve a story line with the patrician presumption that only the rich like opera. And it’s got it wrong. Today there is a correction, but damage has been done.
It is a glorious festival, and tickets start at £18, top price £77. There are also over 1,000 free tickets available to under-18s and over-60s, with half-price tickets for frontline NHS and police, fire and ambulance staff. It has outreach programmes working with the community, including people with dementia who, it's true, can also love opera. And it employs over 300 local people.
The story is especially wrong because the very purpose Michael Volpe had in creating OHP 21 years ago was to be anti-elitist and celebrate opera, especially Italian opera, as it once was, a wholly democratic form of entertainment. He hails from London’s Italian blue collar community and still delights in the company of old mates like Harry the Greek, as he told AI last year. He took Harry to see his first opera, La Traviata. “Harry had his eyes shut” he said. “I asked him if he was asleep. ‘No’ he said, ‘I was thinking of my sister and the olive groves…’”. Opera can reach any soul, and this summer in this park its magic will enchant hearts of all kinds in new and unforeseen ways.