Sunday, 3 January 2016

Book Review: Noisy at the Wrong Times, by Michael Volpe

Noisy at the Wrong Times: The Story of a Boy Who Didn’t Know His Place
By Michael Volpe. Two Roads Books. 309pp. £8.99. ISBN: 978-1-473-62940-0

[Review published in Opera, January 2016, pp 121-2]

The title gives a two-fold clue. This book, first published earlier this year and now appearing in paperback, might be the memoirs of the founder of Opera Holland Park, but it is by no means an ‘opera memoir’. It tells primarily, instead, of Michael Volpe’s remarkable childhood. ‘Noisy at the wrong times’ is a phrase the author has extracted from his first headmaster’s school report from Woolverstone Hall, the ‘poor man’s Eton’ outside Ipswich to which Volpe, plucked from inner-city London, was sent as a young boy.

Volpe lays out the details of his childhood on a Fulham housing estate. It’s difficult, knowing Volpe’s later history, and not least Opera Holland Park’s penchant for the more extreme corners of the verismo repertoire, not to see much of this childhood as ‘operatic’, with young Michael witness to a tale of fiery Cavalleria urbana. (Early excursions to Italy, where his relatives included a marvellous trapeze-artist uncle, offer a few moments of rusticana contrast.)

There’s the Italian mother, abandoned by the philandering, ne’er-do-well father, who eventually drags herself and her three young boys out of abject poverty: a fierce, noble and instinctive woman whom Volpe describes with the honest and open sincerity that defines the book. As appendices he reprints the eulogies he offered at both her funeral and at that of his brother Matteo, whose troubled life of addiction and intermittent incarceration we’re constantly aware could also have been emulated by Volpe. In a touch that’s typical of the book, Volpe describes both losses with heartbreaking but big-hearted candour, and then goes on to turn his account of Matteo’s death into a passionate paean to the National Health Service and plea for its survival.

It’s too late for the survival of Woolverstone, which we gradually get to know as the book proceeds after Volpe wins a place there, and the book is shot through with a regret both for its demise and for Volpe’s own inability to make the most of the opportunities it afforded him at the time—he embraced the chances offered by the remarkably adventurous drama department and the tension-releasing opportunities available on the rugby pitch but was otherwise, by his own admission, a stubbornly obstructive and rebellious pupil. Volpe’s account of his time at school is, like the book in general, entertaining and often riotously funny, but wise after the event; he writes movingly in retrospect about those teachers who inspired him, with regret about those whom he treated, he admits, disgracefully. That first headmaster quoted above, takes pride of place: ‘Paddy’ Richardson was a man whose wisdom and gentle encouragement—and wily methods of psychological gameplay to bring out the best in his charges— made a deep impression on young Volpe, even if their effects took a long time to manifest themselves. His death in a car crash came at a pivotal time in Volpe’s Woolverstone career and was a catalyst both for the unleashing of the boy’s (self-)destructive tendencies, the author suggests, and for the eventual demise of Woolverstone. This latter event sparks a broader discussion about social mobility and the manifold inadequacies of the well-meaning but, in Volpe’s view, ineffective strategies that replaced the idealism that had informed the Woolverstone project.

This is a pattern throughout the book, where later the specifics of Volpe’s own engagement with opera are also used as the platform from which to launch a passionate defence of the art form and its universal appeal: a philosophy that has informed Opera Holland Park since its foundation, via a somewhat roundabout route, over a quarter of a century ago. As such it’s an inspiring and thought-provoking memoir, its narrative—unpredictable and bracing—driven along by Volpe’s humour, honesty and generosity as a storyteller. And the ultimate message, that seeds sown on apparently unreceptive soil can stubbornly bear fruit, is a powerful and important one about education, opportunity and culture.