Dominic Haddock: opera producer

7 Jan

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. What’s it like running an Islington pub theatre? Meet Dominic Haddock, one of the trio behind OperaUpClose – which puts on affordable opera at the atmospheric King’s Head Theatre on Upper Street and has just set up Islington’s newest theatre above the Hope & Anchor.   Interview by Nicola Baird

Dominic Haddock suggests a 2014 resolution:  “Think of OperaUpClose about 6pm on a cold Wednesday, so you’ve time to get your tickets.”

Dominic Haddock suggests a 2014 resolution for islington residents: “Think of OperaUpClose about 6pm on a cold Wednesday, so you’ve time to get your tickets.”

“You could go to a new venue practically once a week without leaving Islington – it’s an arts pocket outside the West End,” says Dominic Haddock the 27-year-old executive director of OperaUpClose – the resident company at the King’s Head Theatre since 2010.  The King’s Head is just one of Islington’s 35 amazing venues – it’s a pub theatre specialising in opera (and there are several other well-known pub theatres including the Old Red Lion), as well as the Edinburgh Festival specialist at the Pleasance Theatre off Caledonian Road, puppets at the Little Angel Theatre and fantastic dance at Sadler’s Wells.

“There’s so much going on, but every venue has their own identity,” explains Dominic. “It means we’re very supportive. We’ve had microphones break just before the show and had to borrow them from the Almedia Theatre… and we all try to come to each other’s first nights.*”

New Year resolutions for islingtonfacesblog.com readers by Dominic Haddock

  • Go to more shows

  • Go to places you haven’t been before – especially good for Islington locals because there are so many cultural venues to try.

  • Remember we might not always be here, audience numbers were down in the first six months of 2013, so try an opera in a pub (here at King’s Head)

  • Don’t be afraid of Sadler’s Wells – give it a go, like you’d give Shakespeare a go.

  • Go see a puppet show at Little Angel.

OperaUpClose was born thanks to the success of Robin Norton-Hale’s La Boheme which started life as a six-month sell out show at the 35-seater pub, the Cock Tavern Theatre, Kilburn and then went on to make theatre gold plus clocking up two sell out runs at the West End’s Soho Theatre.

“We were astounded when we won the Oliver award, and the rest is history…” says Dominic with a broad smile. It’s a dark winter afternoon but the King’s Head where this interview is taking place is cosy. The fire is lit; it’s almost as if the walls of famous actors are nodding approvingly as the pub tables start to fill up before the evening’s show.

During La Boheme the start of Act 2 takes place in the bar – a perfect location for the King’s Head pub which has had a theatre attached since 1970.

During La Boheme the start of Act 2 takes place in the bar – a perfect location for the King’s Head pub which has had a theatre attached since 1970.

Royal dates 
The King’s Head served its first ale in 1543 –it is rumoured to be named after Henry VIII, who came by on his way to an assignation with a mistress. The current building dates from the 1800s. From 1970 until his death in 2005 it was run as a pub theatre by Dan Crawford, in a room once used for boxing matches. The pub is still owned by Dan’s widow, Stephanie. But now it’s famous for opera.

Dominic Haddock, executive director at OperaUpClose checks the King’s Head stage before Die Fledermaus rehearsals. “The stage used to be so high – it took 24 hours to lever off the layers of plywood with crowbars. There were about 20 stages, piled on top of each other, and between each one a programme had been inserted.”

Dominic Haddock, executive director at OperaUpClose checks the King’s Head stage before Die Fledermaus rehearsals. “The stage used to be so high – it took 24 hours to lever off the layers of plywood with crowbars. There were about 20 stages, piled on top of each other, and between each one a programme had been inserted.”

OperaUpClose co-produces and curates everything at the King’s Head, around eight shows a year – five operas, a couple of plays and a musical – many of which see the 118 seat theatre sold out. Successes include The Barber of Seville, Madam Butterfly, Cinderella, Pagliacci, The Coronation of Poppea, The Turn of the Screw, Manifest Destiny, La Fanciulla del West, Carmen and Tosca.

First timers
“We introduce a lot of people to their first opera – we make it available for everyone and affordable with £10 tickets for every show, but our audience is not incredibly local,” admits Dominic, who is ace at post code analysis. “There are more people buying tickets from outside London as those who live a mile or less from the King’s Head.”

But there are compensations for the directors.

“We have a strong core audience who come to everything, and are willing to take a risk. That is important as we’re starting to do more world premiere operas and engage young composers whose name isn’t the pull. The hope is that they trust us and our taste,” explains Dominic who did theatre Studies at Warwick University and then spent three years honing his business skills working in the City at a multinational sales marketing company “I was longing to get back to the theatre,” he admits.

Since 2010 a key part of Dominic’s role is to make sure the figures add up, whilst his colleagues Robin Norton-Hale and Adam Spreadbury-Maher are the creative team. Last year (2013) the trio turned the business into a charity. “It’s never been a 9-5 job,” stresses Dominic, “we need a business model that allows us to have eight permanent full time staff, affordable tickets – like our family Sundays – and a way to be able to give away 10 per cent of our tickets annually as raffle or other prizes.”

New theatre in Upper Street
It seems the model is working: in late 2013 the team opened the Hope Theatre above the famous Hope and Anchor pub (where the Stranglers and many punk bands played in the 1970s) just down the road, and close to Highbury and Islington tube.

“We now run the oldest and newest pub theatres in Islington,” says Dominic. The 50-seater theatre will be used chiefly to trial new writing which challenges audiences with, as the website puts it, “complex, engaging stories that ask bold questions, provoke debate, entertain and break new ground.” But what he’s really proud about is that despite no public subsidy the Hope Theatre will be one of the UK’s first venues to ensure that anyone who works there, actors or front of house staff, will be paid no less than the legal minimum wage – very rare still in the theatre world.

Why opera?
Although Dominic has always loved theatre, opera is a new passion.

“I was taken half a dozen times as a child by my folks and godfather,” he explains. But opera is an important love now and he relishes the pre-show atmosphere. “You do see different things every night – we always double cast, so the actors and singers are different each night, the relationships are always different.” Certainly makes me think about going to see a show I know more than once…

Running a theatre (well two now) clearly makes Dominic happy – perhaps because the memory of working as a City suit hasn’t quite left. Indeed in his spare time he’s a trustee of Rowan Arts. And though he lives in Hackney’s London Fields he spends a huge amount of time in Islington. Meetings are at Carluccio, quick drinks at the King’s Head or the Island Queen. Lunch is a sandwich on Upper Street from Don Mateo or Vietnamese noodles at Pho. He’s watching the shows most evenings, and taking time to see shows at nearby venues. See above for Dominic’s inspiring 2014 New Year resolutions and below for how to book a show at the King’s Head Theatre of the new Hope Theatre.

For info about the King’s Head theatre pub and OperaUpClose. Next production is a double bill of Dido & Aeneas and Young Wife (UK premier), which opens on 19 February 2014. Do add a comment if this interview inspires you to book tickets.

 For info about the Hope Theatre at the Hope and Anchor go to http://www.kingsheadtheatre.com/hope-theatre.html

Follow Dominic Haddock on twitter @dominicAKH

*Creative Islington helps link all the venues and local writers and creatives (from festival afficianados and architects to PR and advertisers). It’s free to join, see here

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right).

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z list of posts, or the A-Z of jobs to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola

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2 Responses to “Dominic Haddock: opera producer”

  1. Don Diego March 1, 2014 at 9:33 am #

    Saw Young Wife and Dido & Aeneas last night. I usually run a mile from opera on stage but this setting makes it intense and edgy. Incredible hearing such voices up close. Superb playing, acting and singing – and the staging is inventive, pacy and witty yet delivers a real emotional charge. And you don’t have to take out a loan to get tickets.

    • nicola baird blogs March 1, 2014 at 10:02 am #

      Hi Don Diego, many thanks for offering this review. We are so lucky to have such a venue and be able to see and hear opera so close. It is astonishing. Also glad to learn that Dido & Aeneas was a great show. Nicola

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