Time was when Gazette cub reporters wanting (or being instructed to) cut their reviewing teeth were duly dispatched to Marton’s “pokey hole” - aka St Paul’s Parochial Church Hall - to watch the members of Marton
Operatic Society performing a work from the Gilbert & Sullivan canon.
The hall is still alive with the sound of music but these days is better known as the Visual Noise Arts Centre - the headquarters of the Michael Hall Theatre School as well as his Musica Lirica Opera Company.
Born in Bishop Auckland, Co Durham, the now 57-year-old music teacher arrived in Blackpool – where his parents had bought a guest house - some 20 years ago.
An experienced performer since his school days he had studied at the Royal Academy of Music but his burgeoning singing career was wrecked by recurring sinusitis and he retreated to Blackpool to “lick my wounds” and, it turned out, settle down.
“Music had always been such an important part of my life I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else,” he says. “When I came here I didn’t know what the hell to do with my life. I knew though that leaving London didn’t make me have to give up the idea of a future career in opera.”
Music has always been such an important part of my life
However, he decided to combine his love of languages with a new direction. So he went to the then Preston Polytechnic to study European Business Administration and languages.
“But the job situation at the time was absolutely awful,” he says. “I’d done German as my main language, French as second despite Italian being my first love, then I went and did a master’s degree in information management and came top of my year but still couldn’t get a job.”
Even adding in some Russian and not forgetting his musical qualifications he still found himself “over qualified and under experienced - in which case you say to yourself you have to make a job for yourself.”
He ended up “doing a little bit of singing teaching” from his parents’ guest house.
After a slow start it “went crazy” and he found himself working up to 12 hours a day with more than 40 people on his waiting list.
By now working from his own home he invited one of his pupils, the tenor Steve Burrows, to share the teaching duties – one based in a music room the other in the dining room.
By 2001 he had added conducting Lytham Light Orchestra to his CV and then came drama and dance lessons.
“We’d sometimes have fights with dance schools when our rehearsal schedules overlapped,” he says. “We’d started a few drama lessons from home so we decided to do the whole thing.”
Next up was taking on the parochial hall with its own stage and sprung floor, a process which took an unexpected 18 months of negotiations but which was paid off two years early four years ago.
By 2003 the Visual Noise Arts Centre had everything under one roof. Today the dance classes are operated separately but with upwards of 140 students aged from five to 83 taking music or drama there’s quite enough to be going on with.
“It’s a lot harder to attract students these days,” he says. “I put it down to the way the education system is pushing performing arts so you are getting an increasing number of people coming back from university or college who can’t get full time jobs so there’s some sort of ‘theatre school’ opening up in every church hall and every corner of every street. It’s saturated now. I think that the days of the big schools are over because of the amount of competition.”
Plus too many students thinking it’s a short cut to fame?
“I know of someone who got a first in performing arts who is now face painting on a caravan park. It’s totally insane. Once at 16 they went to Butlin’s or Pontin’s and learned their craft there. Now they have to have a degree to do the same job.”
There is an upside though.
“My wife was at Schools Alive at the Grand recently and said how the standard has improved over the years and that’s probably because of performing arts graduates re-training to become primary school teachers.”
As for council support he says: “It would probably be there if I was prepared to sell my soul to the devil to apply for it. “Everybody tells us we ought to try especially after getting 10 years olds into full length Shakespeare.”
Not forgetting former student, X Factor’s 2012 finalist Aiden Grimshaw, playing Romeo when he was just 18.
“But we’ve never really gone down the route of trying to get subsidies.”
So is Blackpool a particularly talented area?
“I don’t believe in talented areas. If you have opportunities and tradition and it’s in your culture you will bring out talent that is there. I believe that talent is everywhere, Blackpool probably brings out the talent of more people in the entertainment industry than anywhere else, but not because we are more talented, it’s that we are more conscious of the opportunities.”
He is now “pushing opera.”
“Now I’m more established I can do a little bit more classical music than I used to do. I don’t force it on anyone. I put on Mozart’s Magic Flute and we had 12 kids in it and the parents came up afterwards and said it was really good, it was really fun. If they reject something like opera they never find out if they’re any good at it.”
So why do people sign up?
“All sorts of reasons, some want to sing better at karaoke, some used to sing when they were young and want to get back into it, some buy six singing lessons for their wife at Christmas, some are pushed into it by their parents or grandparents.”
And the X Factor, factor?
“I’m often asked if reality programmes are good for what I do. The honest answer is I don’t know. I think possibly a little but then they make a big stress of talented persons having the ‘X factor’ innate in them without ever having a singing lesson in their life. But you can hear that. If you are properly trained it won’t sound artificial, if you are half trained it will.”
His own theatre trips largely involve European opera festivals, so doesn’t he feel a shade culturally high and dry in Blackpool?
“Providing I get my fix regularly I’m fine. I like to have a mission and my mission is to encourage opera.”
That’s why he started Musica Lirica in 2009. Originally sharing the stage with an evening of classic drama it grew from a choir to a company with its own orchestra (the former Lytham Light Orchestra).
“My passion is to make opera more available, more accessible,” he says. Already on hand in the big cities, the regions are starved he feels.
“There needs to be people like me able to go round schools and get kids interested, but the problem is that most state schools have virtually abandoned classical music in the last 20 or so years.”
Because of budget cut backs and staffing levels?
“I just think it’s ignorance. We now live in a society which asks the kids what they want to learn – certainly in music. And of course they don’t know, so to keep numbers up they’ve got to get ‘cool’ choices. Instant gratification, not violin lessons.”
So we are in a cultural desert?
“No, I’m an optimist – albeit a cynical one - but I think it’s getting harder. We mustn’t become too complacent or we could reach the point of no return.
“I heard that Les Miserables or Miss Saigon was once offered for a season run and told it was too posh for Blackpool,” he says. “I do think we missed a great opportunity for the town to become the West End of the North. We had the theatres and accommodation and less competition elsewhere but I think complacency had already set in, and I think it will be hard for the chance to come again.”
So if we’ve missed the West End boat what can be done?
“The promenade looks good and I like what they’ve done to the Tower - but we are over-run with DSS people and that’s a direct result of tourism going down.
“If the rooms weren’t empty they wouldn’t be filled with other people. Ideally speaking we want to be like Brighton which is booming. People have got to want to come here.
“I think what is being done with the Opera House is perfect. Our youngsters have just done Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
“The Grand used to have it every year so my kids know it inside out. It’s the most fantastic show that children can do, they are on stage all the time, they see so much, there’s a genius about the production that draws everyone in.”
Is that why he cites theatre as his favourite thing?
“I feel that modern life is turning us all into a cross between politicians and showbusiness. Kids are christened with showbiz names, and we all have to be so careful what we say that no one dare say anything anymore.
“But I’m a grumpy old man and theatre takes me back to when I was kid and my grandfather taking me to see Cilla Black – in the circle, but talking to him one to one. It takes me back to a different time.
“I think we get bad publicity because there are people out there who just like to knock Blackpool.
“I think we are making more of what we’ve got but the problem is that people in general these days are unmoved by the things that used to attract them. Nothing is a big deal anymore.
“All they want to do is sit and watch the television and if that fills so much of their lives then I think we’ve got an uphill struggle.”
So would he come to live here today?
“If I didn’t know what I know now then I probably wouldn’t, but Blackpool has been very good to me. Because of the tradition of the theatre I think as a singing teacher it would be remiss of me to criticise Blackpool too much because I’ve done well out of it.”
So Blackpool in 10 years’ time? Plodding, progressing or standing still?
“Plodding I think. Progress? I don’t believe in mottos. Rolling your sleeves up and doing is 10 times more important than a motto.
“The place needs more cynical optimists like me to say let’s do this, it’s better to try and fail than never to try at all.”
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