… and you can’t underestimate the value of a good cup of tea!
Blaire White, Pettman DARE Fellow 2018/19, has just left Leeds to complete her Fellowship at New Zealand Opera in Auckland.
Just like that, my time at Opera North has finished, and I am back in New Zealand. Where did the time go? Fortunately, I have three months remaining on the Pettman Dare Fellowship to learn and work with the team at New Zealand Opera and continue my studies remotely with the University of Leeds, so there is plenty to look forward to! Reflecting back, I thought I would share a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
- Sometimes the schedule needs to slide
As a prior event coordinator, I love a good schedule, and will happily run an event to the minute. However, I had to let my clipboard agenda slide on snowy mornings in the North. Anyone braving the icy roads to come along to a cold school hall to work on our Community Opera definitely earned a strong cuppa and a warm greeting, no matter the time they arrive. Leading me on to my next lesson…
- You can’t underestimate the value of a good cup of tea and cake
Once I learned to let the schedule slide, I was able to observe the magic that happens when people are given the chance to chat over a good cuppa. The room instantly breathes a sigh of relief, as people relax (reassured that they will not have to do anything too outgoing for the next twenty minutes). This was particularly evident at our story gathering sessions during the writing phase of the Community Opera in County Durham. Special little stories emerged, stories that many of the tellers didn’t value or think to be of high importance. Creating this welcoming environment was our way of thanking our participants for coming. Through practicing the principle of manaakitanga- we could simultaneously respect and empower the people we were working with.
- A performance doesn’t have to be of a high artistic quality to be valuable
This was particularly evident over the Christmas season, as public spaces were filled with enthusiastic British people fervently singing Christmas carols. There was no musical prerequisite – people simply wanted to sing. And who could deny them the instantaneous joy that comes with singing lyrics like ‘ding dong merrily on high’ and so forth? With this enthusiasm came intrinsic value. Value and its subjectivity were further explored in my classes at the University of Leeds, as we observed recent trends from Arts Council UK to measure value over excellence. As a performer who aims for excellence, this has been a difficult concept for me to grasp. However, one needs to only attend an Opera North Little Singers session (aimed at 2-4-year olds) to see the value of messy imperfect performance and play. Do we need to take ourselves so seriously?
- Arts organisations should be representative of the audiences we want to engage
Nina Simon (currently my favourite author) describes this well:
‘Imagine a party. There’s food. There’s music. There’s laughter. That’s the room a party lives in. But the party is going to feel different if everyone in the room is wearing black tie. Or if everyone is eight years old. Or if everyone is south Indian. The existing insiders have a significant impact on how newcomers experience the room.
Professionals often ignore the role that the people in the room play in the reception of the experience. We focus on the content: the art, the story, the park. We do that because we ARE the people in the room.’
You can check out Nina Simon’s writing here: http://www.artofrelevance.org
In addition to their regular opera on the stage, Opera North created countless opportunities for people to engage with the arts. In addition to the education activity, they showcased a myriad of musical styles in their concert space- the Howard Assembly Room and perform in a variety of locations and settings in the North (this month sees the Orchestra performing Jurassic Park alongside an outdoor screening of the film). Through diversifying their offering beyond opera, the company was able to use its resources to foster talent across multiple art forms. None of these performances intended to bring people into the opera house, but provided a platform through which the organisation could entertain more people.
- The goal shouldn’t be to make everyone enjoy your art form. The goal should be to remove barriers so they can try it and decide for themselves.
I learned this lesson whilst supervising a bus trip with the Opera North Children’s Chorus, delayed in heavy traffic on our way to a concert. After a few rounds of car cricket (I exhausted all my car trip games during those long few hours), we soon were discussing the different instruments of the orchestra, as the children were to perform with the Orchestra of Opera North. That evening, as we were sitting in the choir stalls, the orchestra in front of us and the performance about to begin, one of the younger students in the choir turned to me, confusion painted on her face. ‘Miss!’ she said loudly, squinting down at the players in the orchestra, ‘Miss, I can’t see the orchestra!’
Once she realised that the orchestra wasn’t a special mystery instrument; the student told me she didn’t like the orchestra very much, as they were too loud. A fair point (although our proximity to the brass section may not have helped). She conceded that she would prefer to listen to a ‘group of the big violins’ (double basses). Maybe next time!
She had a fair opportunity to work this out, to decide, and make her own judgement.
- Practice generosity.
I have been able to follow my career path due to the generosity of others. I am hugely grateful to Maureen and the late Barrie Pettman for funding this fellowship, and enabling me to experience the vibrant arts industry in the UK. I hope that one day I can similarly support a future fresh-faced artist. I’m additionally indebted to the generosity of Opera North, University of Leeds and New Zealand Opera for challenging, encouraging and teaching me over this time.
From left: Hannah Greenwood, 2018/19 Fellow; Dr Kara McKechnie, University of Leeds; Blaire; Lesley Patrick, Opera North
And some top tips for future Fellows from New Zealand…
As much as you try, it is impossible to persuade British people that Christmas is better in summer.
Hot chips are called chips. Chips are called crisps. These may be served on a plate in a cafe. Don’t be surprised.
People really do say ‘not bovvered.’ Turns out Katherine Tait’s characters really are influenced by actual Brits.
People will look bewildered when you tell them you like their pants. Especially children. Don’t do it! Say trousers.
Sandwiches have many names- the oddest being ‘butty.’ Yup. Team butties is a thing.
Washing up bowls. A bowl within a sink. It doesn’t make sense, but true Brits swear by them.
The English countryside is beautiful! Go walk. Amble. Run around and leap for joy if it’s a fine day. Enjoy the amazing gardens.
You must always be prepared for a sudden change of weather. This is best done through the utilisation of a backpack or ‘rucksack.’
The national trust is a worthy investment. (see above point)