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Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020
11 Jun 2020

Tête à Tête Airs Programme for a Real Opera Festival in an Imaginary World

Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020 is rooted in themes of unreal and fictional worlds, impending political doom and apocalyptic futures, reflecting a real world in a state of unease.

Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020

Above: Nadine Benjamin

Photo credit: Claire Shovelton


2020’s festival returns with a majestic array of operas that will both take place in the realm of the imagination, and hopefully make it into the real world too. Since the 2020 festival will partially take place in the space of the imagination as outlined in Artistic Director Bill Bankes-Jones’ Manifesto, it is only fitting that several operas are grounded in imaginary worlds:

The Minutes of the Hildegard von Bingen Society for Gardening Companionsreanimates a queer, feminist gardening society founded by 12th century mystic and musician Hildegard von Bingen, an opera of playful seriousness underpinned by extensive historical, musicological and imaginary, speculative research.

Tiresias is a unique one-woman sci-fi opera set in the far future, in which Tiresias 2.0 wanders a desolate landscape and asks a flower-pot how the fate of the earth came to be

The Trilobite. Or The Fall Of Mr Williams , an opera played out in mid-air, gravitates around a geography teacher / trilobite stealer who falls off a cliff

Beethoven Was A Lesbian is a show paying homage to the American Composer Pauline Oliveros in extravagant temporal drag, through the blending of academic lecture, piano music, sonic meditations, poetry and the distribution of postcards. The subsequent show, Nous, continues the homage to Oliveros while exploring near-death experiences

One of the highlights of the festival this year, The Bridge Between Breaths, concerns visibility and accessibility. Deaf and hearing audiences meet in the connected space between breaths, whilst a painter responds to the sounds with brushstrokes on canvas. This art-making explores whether live visual art can make opera more accessible to deaf audiences. The show as a whole represents Tête à Tête’s particular effort over recent years to welcome more disabled artists, many of whom are collaborating with Tête à Tête this year in less overt ways

Other gems include Fruit Bowl, an absurdist opera which unpeels the story of a Kiwi and a Lime as they rot together in a fruit bowl while an evening of jazz, gin and partying swirls around them, Karakoram - A Contemporary Opera, a yeti-based opera set amidst mountains involves a pub, a wise old monk and a monster’s pursuit, all working to capture the fear of the unknown. Elsewhere, the comic musical Last Party on Earth takes us to a post-apocalyptic world, where, in the aftermath of fire, flood and virus, two survivors happen upon a self-isolating, stockpiling Queen of Cans in a bunker, who invites them inside for an accordion-fuelled party.

Several operas make use of the theme of time, asking us to journey through it and see time in a new light:

The Manna Threshold , an opera set in 2270, locates us in a future where time is abolished while an immortal and a long-lived mortal debate their respective ways of life

We Sing / I Sang , an improvised science fiction opera, follows the Mind journeying across the stars, revisiting past memories proffered by the audience that are so terrible it begins to schism and crack

Elsewhere, politics are rife: Bread and Circuses presents live wrestling, using the world of professional wrestling to unpick the political culture which enabled the Trump presidency while Minutes to Midnight: A Nuclear Opera sees two missileers sitting in a nuclear bunker 50-feet below ground, awaiting the call to initiate a launch amid the 2016 US presidential election. Then, The Agency presents an eco-noir socialist-feminist time-bending detective opera looking at the histories of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and capitalist repression.

Stories are sustenance, and it comes as no surprise that, this year, several of the operas in the festival are woven from literature: Siddhartha, based on Hermann Hesse's allegorical novel, is a mystic, minimalistic and psychologically oriented operatic tale which observes the title character acquiring self-knowledge; Paradise Lost presents a stripped back version of Milton’s epic poem consisting of Lucifer / Satan’s text alone, with countertenor Lawrence Zazzo offering such a fascinating perspective as the antagonist that we find ourselves sympathising with the devil; Olga’s Story, based on the book by Stephanie Williams, follows one woman’s remarkable escape to England during revolution in Siberia and war in China, a tale elevating the importance of family and human connection, and Song of Isis, inspired by Christine Aziz’s poem, is a powerful reimagining of the story of Isis, an ancient Egyptian Goddess whose heartfelt lament mourns her murdered husband.

Elsewhere, inspired by Graham Greene’s The End of The Affair, Rain chronicles the obsessive love affair between a sinister novelist and a married woman, set against the background of the London Blitz and The Buddha, The Monkey King and the Monk of the River , adapted from one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature combines Chinese and Western musical instruments, Chinese folk religion and mythology to tell the story of one Buddhist who journeys West and encounters the Monkey King.

Amongst the myriad of operas this year, a few are particularly aimed at children. Bubbles the Zebrafish & The No. 8 Bus explores ecological issues in a tale featuring all things sparkly and magical, ice cream, the Pacific Ocean, a flamboyant royal dressmaker Zebrafish and storms of plastic, while Goblin Market, based on Christina Rossetti’s poem, is a chamber opera of high energy physical theatre involving fruit, sisters, goblins and temptation.

Tête à Tête has created a web page for each opera premiere, a space where artists are encouraged to share their creative processes and thus is already a festival of vision, whether or not it makes it to real-world performances. In a blog post, Bill has stated that this will be a platform where artists are free to upload videos, sound recordings, images, interviews, draft libretti, storyboards and the various literary and visual influences that inspire their work.

Artists will also share the developments of their operas in offline ways, in order to reach those without access to the online world. They are already inspiring each other with creative ways to do this using the telephone, post, existing networks, crisis networks, outdoor socially distanced manifestations and no doubt many more ideas to come

Tête à Tête hopes that the operas will take place in very real venues as planned. If, on this occasion, logistics limit this plan, then Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival is delighted nevertheless that artists’ imaginative vision and the creative curiosity of audiences will still have a space to connect.

Tête à Tête is urging for donations to help protect its artists in this time. With many early career/emerging artists and all forging portfolio careers, these festival artists are among by far the most vulnerable of the many making their lives in the arts. This year, the company is splitting 75% of any donations (plus Gift Aid income where applicable) evenly between each festival companies to share between their artists, while allocating the remaining 25% to giving them all a secure and safe environment to perform in. If you are able to, please consider making a donation to Tête à Tête to support its artists.

Tête à Tête is continuing to provide worldwide community-building in opera, through its YouTube channel #MyNewOpera which launched in 2018 to provide a digital collection of videos of opera.

If you would like to be notified when tickets go on sale, please sign up to Tête à Tête’s mailing list here.

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