Opera Now: Close Encounters - Pop-up Concerts
Original article in Opera Now by Coriander Stuttard
In an age of ‘pop ups’ when restaurants, fashion and experiences spring up and then disappear, leaving you wanting more, it’s not surprising that classical music has joined the trend. But for two classical music ‘pop up’ ventures, ‘DEBUT Treehouse’ and ‘Classical Pop Ups’, there is much more behind them than a short-lived gimmick. And through ticketing partnerships with Airbnb, they are finding they can suddenly reach out to new audiences who, in pop up style, are left with open minds and a thirst for discovering more.
Lizzie Holmes, a 28-year-old soprano, founded DEBUT in 2015, inspired and helped by Philip Carne, founder of The Carne Trust, which supports young talent in the performing arts. Holmes wanted to showcase emerging singers and initially did this in a corporate environment, but always with a focus on quality musical performance. After a serendipitous meeting with Ross Elder, who runs the Shoreditch Treehouse venue (which is actually his home), they decided to start a series of monthly classical music concerts in the Treehouse: ‘DEBUT Treehouse.’
Holmes was taken aback by the incredible nine-foot Steinway grand piano which Elder had in the Treehouse. ‘I said to Ross that this environment is just what classical music needs,’ she explains. ‘The biggest challenge for finding new concert spaces in creative places is having a good piano. This relaxed environment could be the perfect antidote to how you normally listen to classical music.’ It seems to have taken off - DEBUT Treehouse has just been voted number two of global airbnb experiences.
The setting is special, up on the third floor of a building in the heart of Shoreditch, all wood with a mixture of chairs and cushions, Holmes and Elder greeting guests on the door and gentle lounge jazz playing as people arrive. It is designed to be informal. ‘We used to have classical music at the point when people arrive, but everyone went silent straight away so we switched to jazz so people continue to talk and relax before the concert,’ says Holmes.
The audience is then treated to three 30 minute sets of a range of classical music - opera, song and instrumental as well as a handful of musical theatre pieces – musical theatre, classical aria and instrumental interludes - in this intimate setting. The audience listens while the musicians are performing, it’s not background music but even just the physical set up of the room immediately makes it feel more informal.
Holmes is keen to offer a range of repertoire, which gives the audience an experience of the different genres and performers a chance to try things out in front of a new and supportive audience, many of them experiencing opera for the first time: perhaps things for auditions, competitions or a role or a special collaboration for the night. The February concert saw mezzo soprano Katie Coventry, cellist Yaroslava Trofymchuk and pianist Yau Cheng performing Ravel's Chansons madécasses (Madagascan Songs).
As well as performing, both Holmes and performers talk about the music, techniques and their stories to really try to engage and even partially educate the audience. During the breaks, audience and performers mingle and anyone is invited to come and play the piano. ‘I feel the essence of the night is to showcase rising musicians,’ she says, ‘our performers are mainly aged 22 - 30 so our audience see classical music through the eyes of these charismatic performers who are at the beginning stages of international careers’ It is a great introduction to some of the best talent.
Performers include rising pianists who hold all the major piano accompanist prizes in the UK, as well as winners of the Ferrier Awards and Wigmore Hall International Song Competition and singers making their debuts for English National Opera, Grange Festival and Glyndebourne. These new audiences who have had this chance to meet the singers then become their followers - it's a chance to build a bit of a fan base.
This close-up connection between musicians and audiences, away from the formalities of the concert hall is something which is echoed in another pop up venture, Classical Pop Ups, which was established in 2016 by violinist Sali-Wyn Ryan and is now being promoted as another classical airbnb experience. Ryan invites the top talent from UK orchestras and West End shows (many of them section principals) and arranges performances in unusual settings - pubs, museums, cocktail bars and markets but the list is ever growing.
An RPO violinist herself, Ryan comments ‘we are often led to believe that there are quick routes to success in the Arts industry and quick fixes. This is a dream team of musicians that have worked for absolutely years to reach their goals and achievements - no gimmicks, no sob stories, just sheer hard work, commitment and sacrifice!’ For the musicians performing, it is a chance to play some different music, in smaller groups, amongst friends and the evenings are just as rewarding for them as they are for the audience.
The airbnb collaboration is taking the reach of these events to an interesting new audience. ‘I’d say our audience is classical curious - many of them have never been to an opera before, but we do also get returning classical music aficionados who just love the atmosphere’ explains Holmes. She is in collaboration with the Royal College of Music for her instrumentalists and many of her singers come through personal connections and their recommendations. ‘Sharing music is at the heart of it,’ she explains. ‘All our performers want to come back. Sometimes training at a Conservatoire can be so analytical, you can lose your spark but this really encourages playfulness and audience engagement - our audience sit within touching distance!’
Although DEBUT Treehouse is tied to the physical venue in Shoreditch, both Holmes and Ryan are constantly thinking about new pop-up ventures and broadening their ideas. Holmes has a Shakespearean Summers concert coming up at Omnibus Theatre in South London, along with plans to collaborate with young artists from the summer opera festivals in DEBUT Treehouse concerts to introduce them informally to a new audience.
Classical Pop-Ups has also started working with Pop-Up Painting and will continue to look at combining different art forms or experiences – as Ryan comments, ‘lifestyle is so fluid these days... people want little snippets of experiences!’