May 10, 2010 / 4:57 PM / in 7 years

Opera impresario flits from country house to prison

LONDON (Reuters) - But for good luck, Wasfi Kani believes that instead of being a high-flyer in the financial markets turned opera impresario, she just might have found herself locked up in jail.

As it is, the London-based arts fund-raiser and social campaigner is preparing for the upcoming country house opera season, which she treats as a natural complement to the performances in prisons that she also leads.

“I was brought up in a council house (state housing) in the east end. I genuinely believe that I could be one of them (a prisoner) if I had not had amazing good fortune,” Kani told Reuters, explaining her reasons for embarking on prison opera.

A sense the divide between the two ends of the social scale is much narrower than generally believed and a determination to make everyone understand that is a guiding force behind Kani’s career.

After leaving her humble beginnings to study music at Oxford, Kani worked in the City of London (the square mile where most financial institutions have their offices) for 10 years until music drew her back.

In 1987, she set up Pimlico Opera, which as well as touring spends six weeks of every year working inside prisons to stage productions in which inmates perform alongside professional musicians.

Kani still runs that, but since 1997, she has also led Grange Park Opera, which puts on opera in an elegant country house in Hampshire, southern England, and provides strong competition to the longer-established “G-word,” as Kani refers to Glyndebourne.

This year’s Grange Park season begins on June 3 with Puccini’s “Tosca,” followed by Richard Strauss’s “Capriccio” and Prokofiev’s “The Love for 3 Oranges” and after a dip last year during the depth of economic recession, ticket sales are up.

“Our ticket sales have gone back to growth on two years ago,” said Kani. “My worst time was this time last year. Last year, tickets fell for the first time. I was in a bit of a tizzy.”

FUNDING DRIVE

Britain’s inconclusive May general election in which no single party gained a governing majority could mean more hard times for arts organizations dependent on state cash, Kani said. But she has confidence in her ability to carry on drumming up funding from private donors to keep her operas afloat.

Her faith is probably justified. Most in the arts world acknowledge Kani as a powerful force, strengthened by her City experience, and Britain has honored her services to arts and the community with an Order of the British Empire award.

Her success derives from relentless hard work and refusing to give way to the complacency that might make the public turn away.

“People have a huge choice about what they do,” she said. “You have to make it much more than just coming to the opera. I‘m always adding things. You can’t take your audience for granted.”

Kani particularly targets the young who might struggle to afford around 100 pounds ($154.7) for a night at a country house opera.

She refers to the 20-somethings in her audience as “young meteors” and 30-somethings as “asteroids” and if they want to come to Grange Park, she is willing to open negotiations to establish how much they can pay.

She also dedicates herself to promoting young musical talent.

While spending as much of her budget as she can on securing the best musicians, which has raised Grange Park’s production values ever higher, she also makes space for up and coming operatic singers at another country house venue Nevill Holt, situated in the English Midlands.

After the June Grange Park performances, a youthful cast will perform “Madame Butterfly” at Nevill Holt.

That will be followed by an autumn tour and then next year, returning to Kani’s other world, the prison opera/musical season resumes with “Some Like it Hot.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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