21 Jul 2019

Bill Bankes-Jones on the twelfth Tête à Tête Opera Festival

“We need to stop talking about ‘diversity’ and think instead about ‘inclusivity’,” says Bill Bankes-Jones, when we meet to talk about the forthcoming twelfth Tête à Tête Opera Festival which runs from 24th July to 10th August.

‘Inclusivity’ is something that Bill - founder and Artistic Director of Tête à Tête , and Chair of the UK's network of opera companies, the Opera and Music Theatre Forum - returns to several times during our conversation. As soon as you give things or people ‘labels’, you categorise them, put them in boxes, segregate them. And, such separation creates - perhaps subconsciously, perhaps deliberately, I suggest - a sense of ‘them and us’: a duality formed of those who feel they can enter the box, and those who believe it’s not for them, or that they are excluded. Bill agrees, noting that opera, certainly in the last ten years or so, has frequently marketed itself on ‘exclusivity’. The very buildings in which it is performed - even newly designed or refurbished venues- are often intended to create a sense of stepping into a different world in which the stratification is cultural, social and architectural - a world with its own codes and rituals, and one where one either feels ‘superior’ because one knows the rules of the game, or ‘inferior’ because one doesn’t.

Certainly, a glance at this year’s Tête à Tête programme suggests that the Festival exists to take opera - the art form, its creators and its performers, its audiences - out of its ‘box’, and in some cases place it quite literally ‘on the street’. Alongside performances in venues such as The Place and RADA Studios, the sound and spectacle of this year’s Tête à Tête productions will resound across Coal Drop’s Yard and other public spaces around King’s Cross and environs. There are site-specific pieces which will take place in secret locations. And, this year, the Pop Up Operas - which came to life as a more financially viable and creatively valuable way of generating publicity and audiences than paying for lots of ad space on Tube billboards - are back for the first time since 2015, bringing opera to libraries, community centres, street corners public spaces and foyers all over Camden and King’s Cross. One such Pop Up is Aliens in the Street with music by Vahan Salorian and words by Dominic Kimberlin, which Bill himself is directing, and which presents an ‘alien conspiracy theorist trying to sell her new invention on the streets - a pair of glasses that help you see the extra-terrestrial life that is walking amongst us - when she encounters a mysterious stranger in need of help’.

There’s a panoply of opera on offer - but it’s not opera ‘as you know it’, or think you know it. In Coal Drop’s Yard, Madame Butterflop , a so-called ‘ruination’ of Puccini’s tale of colonial callousness and oriental innocence, will be followed the next evening by a performance by singer-songwriter-cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson , who is described as ‘a rare exception to the rule that classical and alternative R&B music cannot successfully co-exist’. One Art , Paula M. Kimper’s settings of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, reflects on loss. In Be a Doll Alexa Dexa from the USA uses vocals, toy instruments and electronics to create a ‘toy opera’ in which a woman’s struggle to attain the submissive perfectionism to which the world conditions her, leaves her unable to determine whether she is a woman or a doll. Hildegard: Visions by Nwando Ebizie with Tom Richards and Loré Lixenberg , a ‘sensory opera-happening’, brings together Hildegard von Bingen, Haitian vodou and neurodiversity and promises to transport its audience ‘through a journey from intimacy to ecstasy’.

Youth and age are juxtaposed: a dance-theatre-opera collaboration, Of Body and Ghost , between dance maker Yolande Snaith, composer Kris Apple, writer/dramaturg Roswitha Gerlitz and vocalist Barbara Byers is ‘an ethereal rite of passage of the process of aging’; Growth of the Silk (music/words William Hearne, words Lavinia Murray) is ‘an original fairytale about a girl’s misguided wish for long lustrous hair which leaves her ultimately crushed under the weight of the unstoppable growth. The latter sounds to me, rather like Be a Doll, as if it might have been the subject of a Carol Ann Duffy poem, as does ROBE, a ‘posthuman fantasia’ about cartography, cyberpunk and A.I. in which a woman charged with ‘mapping’ a superintelligence, EDINBURGH, grows close to the creature and weaves into the map ‘things that cannot be known or spoken: the hidden histories of joy and longing each privately our own.’

Are such productions really ‘opera’, I ask Bill? I recall working with postgraduate dancers/researchers at London Contemporary Dance School (at The Place) almost twenty years ago, when the ‘buzz words’ amongst those creating new dance productions were ‘text’ and ‘film’. If you put movement, music, voice, text, and theatre together, what do you have? Opera? Certainly, and with a dismissal of those ‘labels’ again, Bill agrees that the very hybridity of opera brings all these things together in ways which can/should, be liberating and inclusive. “If you don’t tell an audience that they are about to see a ‘contemporary opera’, then they won’t reject it, they’ll just stop in the street and enjoy it.”

So, I ask Bill, ‘who is Tête à Tête for?’ I’m aware that this question might sound a little confrontational, but it’s not meant to be. It’s just that, I explain, I experience and enjoy an enormous amount of opera - and music, dance, theatre - each year (week!), in venues ranging from grand country houses to underground tunnels or former newspaper printing-press factories , but I’m not sure that, excepting individual productions where the subject-content or performers involved might catch my eye, I would necessarily be drawn towards the Festival’s offerings.

I’m aware that that probably says more about me than about Tête à Tête; but Bill, fortunately, seems to find my question interesting rather than offensive or provocative. His response suggests that at the heart of the Tête à Tête enterprise are the performers themselves. And, I guess, that’s where it all started: when, in 1997, after five years as a staff director at English National Opera, Bill became frustrated with grand, clunky mechanisms for making opera and with financial and creative structures which precluded risk, enterprise and a can-do/will-do/go-getting mentality.

And, so, Tête à Tête was born: in its first guise it was a production company collaborating with the likes of Battersea Arts Centre, ENO studio, Streetwise Opera and Opera Genesis which aimed to ‘make things happen’, facilitate new work and foster new relationships. Since then, Tête à Tête has created or enabled over 500 world premieres involving collectively 10,000 singers, conductors, instrumentalists, sound engineers, lighting specialists, costume designers, videographers. In 2007 the summer Opera Festival was launched. Subsequently, the company was awarded a UK Arts Online Award for its online archive of 400+ videos of every performance hosted or produced since 2008. The Tête à Tête website rightly boasts that it is ‘the largest online video resource for new opera on the internet, reaching an audience of over 1,000,000 in 155 Countries from Azerbaijan to Uruguay and from Indonesia to Iceland!’

I wonder whether a ‘family’ of performers and creators has developed over the years, and Bill confirms that to some extent this is the case. But, his criteria for selecting productions of each year’s Festival are driven by a few essential principles and values. Bill explains that he isn’t interested in ‘innovation’ for its own sake - he later confesses to rather liking those old ‘operatic rituals’ - but instead he’s concerned to facilitate and sustain new voices which are sincere and driven by genuine belief and passion. He admits that sometimes the decision to accept a particular production might be influenced by seemingly arbitrary factors, such as whether it would offer a creator based outside London their first opportunity to have their work seen in the capital.

So, my second question is, ‘who watches Tête à Tête productions’?’ Bill pulls out his ’phone to show me some photographs of past Cubitt Session audiences: the images are snapshots of your average London high street with children perched on their fathers’ shoulders, passers-by and shoppers lounging in deckchairs, and construction workers peering down from roof-top workspaces. Will these audiences make the transition from the street - where the opera literally springs up before their eyes - to a more ‘formal’ Tête à Tête venue, or another opera house or festival? Probably not. Does that matter. No. The oft-repeated mantra about ‘creating new audiences’ seems irrelevant, or tangential, to Bill; it’s the here and now that matters. Tête à Tête productions might be seen by up to 5000 people, far more than is usually the case for newly commissioned work; and the potential audience for the online videos is limitless.

Bill notes that the performers are very supportive of each other’s productions and that they often bring their own audiences with them - and, of course, they are very adept at using social media to generate interest. He also comments that frequently individual productions channel quite ‘specialised’ audience interests: he recalls 2015 where the respective audiences for Helen Parker-Jayne Isibor’s ‘Nigerian pidgin opera’ Song-Queen and for Sacred Mountain. Incidents in the Life of Queen Nanny of the Maroons , an opera which presented an epic narrative about the Caribbean ancestors of the composer, Shirley Thompson, barely exchanged glances as they passed to and from the performance venue. Finally, he tells me of his surprise, when an audience survey was undertaken a couple of years ago, to learn that while Tête à Tête audiences predominantly comprised people aged 20-30 years-old, the age-range of those producing the opera was higher, at 30-45 years-old.

So, what Festival productions this year would Bill draw my attention to? He’s very excited about the two site-specific works being presented, as individuals open up their homes for the performance of opera. Danish composer Rasmus Zwicki has been living in London for the last three years, during which time he has collected ‘notes’ from a communal message board in his block of flats in Camden, along with junk mail and graffiti: his Duncan House uses such texts to chart those three years of Brexit chaos and incumbent loneliness and isolation. In contrast, THE 鍵KEY by Francesca Le Lohé engages with Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki’s eponymous novel in which a man, whose sexual relationship with his wife is unfulfilling after twenty years of marriage, writes about his fantasies in his diary. Hoping that his wife will read it, he locks it in a drawer and leaves the key on the floor, but this only inspires her to begin her own diary, which she knows he will read and which she uses to deliberately mislead him.

In Tanizaki’s novella, the two spouses share a life and a living space, but they never meet or b each other. As readers, we traverse an architectural space in which worlds, souls, intersect but are ever isolated. Le Lohé’s opera, which was first performed in Tokyo, will be staged in a private residence around which the audience will move, voyeurs of the unfolding intimacies of the drama. Bill explains that different music by varied ensembles positioned around the building will overlap and the audience will be aware of co-existing but separate musical and personal worlds. Interestingly, and coming back to the question of audiences, Bill recounts an incident at a launch event for this production, which is being mounted in the private home of an architect: when asked whether they were regular opera-goers, just a couple of the 70 or so people present ‘reluctantly’ raised their hands. There were about 40 Japanese among the attendees whose interest in THE鍵KEY was understandable. The others? They were there to view the architecture and interior design, Bill laughs.

One thing about Tête à Tête productions is that they can respond to the moment. Bill tells me that a couple of years ago Brexit and immigration were strong themes. This year, the environment looms large in several productions such as Catherine Kontz’s Pop Up Hand Clap which sets a libretto by the composer’s seven-year old daughter, Emmylou Växby, which engages with ‘the choreographic and linguistic potential of children’s hand-clapping games in music and space, exploring a narrative around the eco environment’.

Bill notes that in recent years opera, in the capital at least, has frequently adopted a ‘West End theatre mentality’, relying on productions which are marketed as ‘celebrity-led’, with ‘big names’ brought in, often from other art forms, in the quest for increased audiences. Another new phenomenon has been the introduction of cinema relays from the ROH, the Met and other big houses. Oddly, such broadcasts bring ‘exclusivity’ and ’inclusivity’ into close proximity. And, I point out to Bill, they bring opera ‘up close’: “Tête à Tête,” he adds, with a wry smile. One of the joys, evidently, for Bill of Tête à Tête’s work is that it creates a genuine intimacy between opera and audience, even in a public street: something that is noticeably lacking, he observes, when one moves from a rehearsal space where the creative team and cast work in close proximity, to a conventional performance space, where performers and audiences are often separated by disruptive distances.

Tête à Tête is the future of opera,” announces the company’s website. And, I come away from my conversation with Bill feeling that - especially given the name of this website - I really ought to have taken and be taking more notice. Bill leaves me to head off to a rehearsal of Aliens in the Street, excited to be working with the full complement of singers and instrumentalists from the first, something not common in larger productions/houses, and also to be reuniting with performers and musicians with whom he’s worked before. Bill draws my attention to something that writer Mark Ravenhill - whose libretto Intolerance was set by composer Conor Mitchel and performed at the 2010 Festival (the first opera about IBS?) - said about Tête à Tête: it’s the only place where, if you have an idea for an opera, you can simply get on with it straight away.

Claire Seymour

Tête à Tête 2019 runs from 24th July to 10th August.