Keith Hann: chilled opera buff

Keith Hann in his "Centre of Mediocrity"

Keith Hann in his “Centre of Mediocrity”

If you ever want an expert in opera, frozen foods and idiosyncratic PR, Keith Hann’s your man. He wrote The Bluffer’s Guide to Opera and is PR for Iceland Foods (you might have seen him in BBC  Two’s ‘Life in the Freezer Cabinet’).

The Bluffer's Guide to Opera

“What utter bollocks, do you fancy a pint?” A fair response to some productions, according to Keith Hann.

Keith describes himself as “the most honest man in PR” and has a notice tacked to his door at Iceland declaring his office the ‘Centre of Mediocrity’. His highly entertaining website flouts marketing’s positive thinking mantra at every turn. His company motto is ‘Like we care’, he has a page where he lists ‘Things we are really good at’ and ‘Things we can just about manage’, and he says that despite being based on a bleak Northumberland hilltop, staffed almost entirely by infants and Border terriers, his consultancy charges “popular* City of London prices”.

We’re having a bit of an opera moment at Chickentown Radio right now, so we invited Keith in the other week to hear some of his favourite moments from opera and to discover if his views on opera are as bracing as his approach to PR. Which they are, it turns out.

Two loathsome characters, one divine song

To start us off, Keith chooses ‘Pur ti miro’, the concluding duet from L’Incoronazione di Poppea by Monteverdi. “This is unquestionably one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written,” says Keith. “It was written in 1642 shortly after the birth of opera. Unlike most human activities, you can date the start of opera to 6 March 1637 when the first opera house opened in Venice.”

“It’s sung by two of the most loathsome characters, Nero and Poppea, but I think this is one of the highlights of the whole operatic canon.”

Matchless entertainment

Keith’s first experience of opera was at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle when he was just a lad. “Watching a 20 stone woman pretending to die of tuberculosis in La Traviata was one of the most moving and entertaining experiences I’ve ever had.”

And today? “I still think opera is the most supremely involving art form,” says Keith. “It can always take me out of myself. The technical expertise of being able to fill a theatre with a voice unamplified is utterly amazing. And if it all comes together with sets, costumes and orchestra, it’s a matchlessly wonderful form of entertainment.”

Skulduggery at the opera

Keith is a huge Handel fan. “I like all of Handel’s operas, and he wrote over 40 of them,” he says. “If I was going on Desert Island Discs, I could easily choose Handel operas for all eight pieces. This aria –  ‘Va tacito e nascosto’ from Giulio Cesare – is a particularly beautiful bit of music from one of his greatest operas.”

Here, Tolomeo, the King of Egypt, has subtly threatened Caesar, who responds by saying that the cunning hunter moves silently and steathily. He’ll be on guard against any skulduggery that Tolomeo has planned.

This aria was originally written for a castrato, like many of the principal parts in Handel’s operas. “But unfortunately there’s rather a shortage of those these days, so they tend to use counter tenors or mezzo sopranos instead,” explains Keith.

The misunderstood art form

We talk about the most common misconceptions about opera that tend to put people off. “People think it’s going to be dull, which it very rarely is, although it can be achieved if you work hard at it,” says Keith.  “People think it’s going to be expensive, which it often is, although it doesn’t have to be. You can go and see world class opera at Covent Garden for a few pounds if you don’t mind standing up. They also think it’s terribly high brow. I don’t think it is. It’s a perfectly accessible art form. There’s no reason why it should be any harder to enjoy than a rock concert. It’s one of the great human endeavours.”

Tip for the opera virgin? See Turandot

If you’re new to opera, Keith recommends Turandot by Puccini. “It’s packed with tunes. Over the years, I’ve taken several people who say they don’t like opera to see Turandot and at the end of the show I’ve asked them, ‘Do you still not like opera?’ and not one of them has failed to be won round by it.”

Here’s Pavarotti singing ‘Nessun dorma’, the most famous operatic tune of all. “Pavarotti had the acting ability of a brick lavatory,” says Keith, “but the most fantastic voice.”

Dark and stormy (no chatting at the back)

For his next choice, Keith leaps forward to the 20th century, with the ‘Storm’ interlude from Britten’s Peter Grimes. “I thought we should have something more modern, to demonstrate I don’t have a complete obsession with early opera,” says Keith.

“Peter Grimes is without doubt the greatest opera written in the 20th century. It’s wonderfully tuneful. There’s no singing in the sea interludes which has the annoying effect that people think it’s alright to talk through the bits where there’s nobody singing on stage. This is very much not the case. Although the fourth interlude is quite loud, being about storms, so they’d probably be drowned out anyway.”

The anti-spin doctor

As mentioned previously, Keith has a reputation for being generous with the truth. How has he managed to make a living in PR, given that positive spin usually goes with the territory?

“I’ve always believed in telling the truth,” he states, “so I’ve made a living out of the PR business for 30 years without ever telling an outright lie. But honesty is always the best policy. It does mean that at the age of almost 60 I’m down to one and a half clients. I’m wearing a shiny suit that doesn’t fit with a cardboard belt, but I’m just about scraping by.”

Rogered for all eternity

Pulling in that cardboard belt, Keith’s thoughts turn back to Handel and a track called ‘Endless pleasure’ from Semele. “There are a number of excellent tracks from Semele,” he says. “This aria is a particularly lovely piece of music where Semele – the mother of Dionysius – sings about the joys of being rogered for all eternity by Jupiter. It’s just beautiful.”

Best of British

Keith isn’t very fond of ‘abroad’, so he doesn’t profess any great knowledge of foreign opera houses. He admits: “I quite like Venice because Venice reminds me of England, with a bit of water. But other than that, I’m very very very insular.”

So his favourite opera venues are exclusively British. “Country house opera in England in June and July is terrific: Glyndebourne, Grange Park, Nevill Holt, Garsington. Personally I enjoy those the most.”

The best opera full stop

As for the best opera, Keith’s vote goes to The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. “It’s just the perfect opera in the way that Jane Austen’s Emma is the perfect novel. It’s unbeatable. All of the Mozart operas are very accessible. The ones he wrote when he was 13 are possibly lower quality than the ones he wrote when he was a massive 25. But Cosi Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute are all fabulous nights out at the theatre.  I particularly like the Marriage of Figaro and could happily see it every month for the rest of my life. I like this quartet in Act 2 – ‘Signori, di fuori son gia i suonatori’.


Keith’s final choice is the Grand March from Verdi’s Aida. Verdi is another of Keith’s recommendations for newcomers to opera. As he says in his book: “Even the sort of people who think they hate opera will cheerfully hum along to the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ from Nabucco, ‘La Donna e mobile’ from Rigoletto, the ‘Drinking Song’ from La Traviata or the ‘Grand March’ from Aida.”

Thanks to Keith for sharing his top opera tips. Here’s what I now know, following our chat:

  • People who are intimidated by opera should try ‘Turandot’.
  • If you want to bluff your way in opera, bask in the brilliance of Handel.
  • Two equally valid responses to opera productions are: “It’s a brilliantly refreshing take on a staid old piece, don’t you think?” and “What utter bollocks. Do you fancy a pint?”

* Regarding those ‘popular City prices’, Keith adds: “Well, we like them.”

West meets East: Opera Holland Park comes to Old Street

Mike Volpe of Opera Holland Park

Mike Volpe of Opera Holland Park

Mike Volpe is a true opera aficionado. For nearly 25 years, he’s been General Manager of Opera Holland Park, enthusing a new generation of opera lovers with an eclectic mix of outdoor performances.

Although his family comes from the mountains outside Naples, Mike grew up in England. He drinks Italian espresso, but when Chelsea play Napoli at Stamford Bridge, he’s adamant that: “It’s Chelsea all the way.”

As part of a Chickentown Radio special, Mike came to BL-NK in Old Street last week to talk about some of his favourite music.

1. Mascagni: Hymn to the sun

Mike’s first choice is the introduction to Pietro Mascagni’s opera Iris. He explains why. “In 1997, a year after we began the company, we thought we’d try to mine a different part of the repertoire to others. This opera came to light and at the time it was a rarity. This piece is a hymn to the sun, and it’s just a glorious piece of music.”

Growing up in an Italian household, there was often opera playing in the background, or an uncle singing traditional Neapolitan songs. “I sang all the way through school, and my school provided kids for the chorus at Aldeburgh,” he says. “Later I listened to a lot of John Martyn and was also really into prog rock, and I think there’s something vaguely operatic about that.”

2. Kate Bush: the blackbird song

Talking of the crossover between rock and opera, Mike adds: “I’m a big fan of Kate Bush. James (Clutton, producer at OHP) and I have often said that she would probably compose a really good modern opera. We’ve just heard a chorus about the rising of the sun and this is about the setting of the sun. It’s Sunset from her album Ariel. It’s one of the most beautiful things she’s ever done and includes a line that could appear in an opera – ‘Who knows who wrote the song of summer that blackbirds sing at dusk’.”

3. Puccini: tattooed words of God

For his next piece, Mike chooses Le tue parole sono di Dio from La Fanciulla del West – which Opera Holland Park is putting on next summer. Mike loves this aria so much he’s had the words tattooed on his forearm.

Operatic ink: "Your words are as if from God"

Operatic ink: “Your words are as if from God”

The opera tells the story of Minnie, a saloon owner during the Gold Rush, who falls in love with a bandit. The miners in the camp take against him and are about to have him hanged. “La Fanciulla del West is probably my favourite Puccini opera,” says Mike, “and this is a crucial moment of redemption. Minnie rides in with a pistol, stops the miners from hanging her lover, and sings this gorgeous soliloquy. Sonora, one of the miners, lets forth this line – Your words are as if from God – and then Minnie and her bandit ride off into the sunset together.”

4. Strauss: a gorgeous lament

Mike’s clear about the best aspect of his job: “James and I both say it’s the applause. It’s that moment at the end of a show when you know it’s a success and there’s a thousand people roaring their approval. That and working with all these incredibly talented people.”

Of course, outdoor opera isn’t so much fun if it’s cold, but Mike reckons the upsides of his job far outweigh the downsides.

Mike’s not complaining, but his next choice is what he describes as a “gorgeous lament”, sung here by the great Jessye Norman. “Beim Schlafengehen is based on a Herman Hesse poem. It means ‘going to sleep’, and is one of Strauss’ four last songs, which are all about dying. You could say it’s a bit miserable, but it’s just a gorgeous way to lament the end of your life. Strauss could do some incredible things with a voice and an orchestra.”

5. Montemezzi: rollicking good fun

Mike describes how he came to choose his next piece, from L’Amore dei Tre Re by Italo Montemezzi. “The first piece we heard today was Iris, which was the start of our journey in rare opera. In 2007 we staged L’Amore dei Tre Re and it was a great success. It’s part of that school of late Italian composers who wanted to create their own new Italian language of opera. It’s just rollicking good fun. The soprano spends the whole of Act 3 dead on a slab, but she’s still part of the action because her father-in-law has spread poison on her lips in order to trap her lover. So we end up with three bodies on stage. This is the prelude to Act 3.”

Opera Holland Park: an intensely informal experience

L’Amore dei Tre Re fits the operatic stereotype of entertainingly over-the-top death scenes, but there are other stereotypes that are potentially more damaging for opera companies today. For example, opera is frequently perceived as expensive and elitist. Mike’s keen to argue that Opera Holland Park offers an entirely different experience. “Yes, opera is an elite art form in the same way that sport is elite. You want to be the best. But we’re entirely about popularising opera. We have thousands of tickets available at 12 or 15 quid, and about 1,700 free tickets for young and old. Opera Holland Park is intensely informal, and the critical thing to note is that most of the people who run the company are from very ordinary working class backgrounds. So if anyone demonstrates that all that elitist business is nonsense, it’s us.”

6. Lechner and Tsabropoulos: evoking atmosphere

Point made, Mike moves on to his next choice: Trois morceaux après des hymnes byzantins II by cellist Anja Lechner and pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos. He explains: “I’m very much into atmosphere in music and love music that mixes genres. This pair evoke atmosphere beautifully – this piece is just gorgeous.”

7. Roberto Murolo: Neapolitan song

From a piece written ten years ago, Mike turns back to his childhood. As a boy, he was surrounded by renditions of Neapolitan songs, and his next choice is one of his mother’s favourites – Voce ‘e Notte – ‘the voice in the night’ by Roberto Murolo. “Part of the problem with Neapolitan songs is there’s some awful cheesy rubbish out there,” says Mike. “But there’s a stable of singers from the 40s and 50s who transcend those stereotypes. Roberto Murolo is a bit of a legend. He just sat there with a cheap guitar and played these gorgeous songs.”

“This song is about a man singing below a woman’s window, saying, ‘Don’t be alarmed, don’t look out, just remember our two voices together.’ It’s exquisitely sung and played, and is a perfect example of the veracity of Neapolitan music, which is a very potent and historic idiom. It evokes Italy and Naples and is really not that far off opera in its sentiments and the way it tells a story.”

Talking of Naples, I was keen to hear where Mike gets his Neapolitan coffee fix in London. “Mokarabia is a really nice coffee,” he says. “There’s a great little cafe opposite our sponsor Investec’s office in the city which sells it. One of those old places where cab drivers stop. So I go there when I’m in the City; Mokarabia is probably the best coffee around.”

Mokarabia coffee: a Neapolitan's choice

Mokarabia coffee: a Neapolitan’s choice

8. Film music: What Dreams May Come

Mike moves on to discuss the similarities between film music and opera. “Film is exactly like opera,” he says. “You have this melodrama and the music is used as an emotional rachet. I’m a big fan of film music and was very fortunate to meet composer Michael Kamen who wrote the music for the Band of Brothers tv series and Mr Holland’s Opus. This music comes from a 1998 film called What Dreams May Come, starring Robin Williams and Greta Scacchi. The premise is that heaven is what you want it to be. The music is very emotional and intense and Michael Kamen captures the sense of the film beautifully.”

9: Pat Metheny: Cinema Paradiso theme

Continuing in the film music vein, Mike’s next choice is an arrangement of the Cinema Paradiso theme by Pat Metheny and Charlie Haden. “Pat Metheny is a great hero of mine,” says Mike, “and this music is gorgeous. You don’t have to be Italian to appreciate Cinema Paradiso, but after spending so many summers in Italy, this music really conjures up that atmosphere for me.”

Alternative careers: actor, rugby player, fisherman, criminal

And what career would Mike have chosen if opera hadn’t got to him first? “There’s a question,” he laughs. “When I was 16 I was offered a very good opportunity to go to RADA. But I didn’t want to spend another three years studying. Maybe I could have been a rugby player. Apart from that, there’s a very good chance I’d have been a criminal. What I’d really like to do, though, is to run a fishing boat out of St John’s in Antigua taking tourists to catch tuna and barracuda.”

10. John Martyn: Couldn’t love you more

Mike’s final choice is John Martyn. “My oldest brother introduced me to John Martyn and I first went to one of his concerts aged 10 or 11. I just love him. He was an incredible songwriter and guitarist, and his Scottish sentimentality and the edge of violence that went along with it are an intoxicating mix.”

“This song, Couldn’t love you more, really sums him up. I don’t know how you could resist a phrase like ‘If you kiss the sun right out of the sky for me, I couldn’t love you more‘. I don’t think there’s any greater love song.”

Summer 2014 at Opera Holland Park

Looking ahead, there’s plenty to draw people to Opera Holland Park this summer. “We open with La Fanciulla del West,” says Mike. “It’s a challenging but wonderful opera to produce. We also have one of the great bel canto operas this year, Norma, which features the famous Casta Diva aria. We’re putting on Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini and Adriana Lecouvreur by Cilea – a lovely romantic piece where the leading lady is killed by some violets laced with poison. And we’re doing our first Britten opera, The Turn of the Screw, which could work amazingly well in our space.”

“We’re also putting on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland again, which we commissioned from Will Todd. We’re big believers in getting young kids to sit down and listen to opera performed by real musicians, and the demand for children’s concerts is consistently high.”

If you’d like to find out when tickets for this summer season are available, follow Opera Holland Park @operahollandpk. After all, where else will you be able to hear Casta Diva in the open air, see a Cheshire Cat sing or witness death-by-violets?