Founded in 1997, Tête à Tête has established itself as the home of new opera. Juliette Barber catches up with its Director, Bill Bankes-Jones, to hear about his plans including a strong LGBTQIA+ theme at this year’s opera festival
What inspired you to set up Tête à Tête?
In my early career I was fortunate to work with many wonderful companies, including National Theatre, ENO, ROH and with the ITV Regional Theatre Young Director’s Scheme, Thorndike Theatre Leatherhead and Redgrave Theatre Farnham. Although this experience built an amazing foundation, I always felt a desire to forge my own path and create something truly unique. This moment of inspiration coincided with a period of work with Declan Donnellan, the co-founder of Cheek by Jowl, who has built an inclusive theatre company with his partner, the designer Nick Omerod. It was these experiences that planted the seeds for Tête à Tête.
There were other reasons too: I kept witnessing composers in their 50s writing their first opera purely because they had a knighthood, having written lots of symphonies, but absolutely nothing for the stage. I felt there was a very strong need for a fringe in opera and wanted to make a company that allows people to try out a new work without feeling overly exposed and where you don’t have to be a “Sir”.
Tête à Tête is renowned for its wide-ranging themes. Is this something that was important from the start?
From the beginning I was keen to ensure our operas told the stories of those we wanted to attract, rather than merely churning out the standard repertoire. It’s horrifying how pretty much every mainstream opera is about abusing a woman. I really am very uncomfortable with that, and at Tête à Tête we don’t regurgitate these themes. Instead, we see ourselves as part of what has become a worldwide movement to make operas people care about, including a move away from misogynistic tropes to portraying kickass women being brilliant.
As a result, our operas have traversed a range of subject matters, ranging from stories of dung beetles, spiders and caterpillars to one about someone being abducted by aliens and a flatshare break up. I think that this kind of commissioning has set a new bar for those that have followed in our footsteps and hopefully this contributes to a more fundamental shift in the sector.
When did you introduce Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival and what was behind your decision?
We created Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival in 2007. It was a way of giving back what other organisations [BAC Opera, Bridewell Theatre, ENO Studio] had given me in the early days of Tête à Tête – the space, money, time and support to make new work and build my own company. When we started in 1999, nobody was making small scale new opera. By 2007 I felt that our experience as a producing organisation put us in a strong position to help artists by giving them a platform to realise their dreams. We hire the theatre, help them with the lighting design, video all their shows and host them online, and do some overall admin, marketing and PR. All they have to do is supply the show, as in the creative team and artists and so on.
While artists maybe receive more support now, as funders such as the Performing Rights Society Foundation have chosen to fund them rather than the organisations, it’s also a shame because it means each artist has to be a businessman too; skills must now include filling out forms as well as creating inspiring works. I like to think of us as a glorious aquarium of art where those who deserve to can float to the top without that pressure in the way.
What makes an opera successful and what are you looking for in an opera at your festival?
The creative drive behind the opera needs to come from the heart, rather than simply being a building block in someone’s career. Although our artists are quite young, probably younger than the mainstream, it’s important to give everyone a chance to make opera, even if they’re in their 80s. Having said that, we are giving quite strong steers now as I think that people need to consider their work very carefully in light of the climate emergency and spend what resources they have on telling stories simply and economically, rather than burning up the planet. The work must also be as inclusive as possible and welcome underrepresented groups.
Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival is known for its inclusivity. How would you define this?
Firstly, it is done entirely without measurement, though definitely with success.
In the 2020 festival, one of the lead artists said, “Oh, look, two thirds of the lead artists are women, let’s organise a zoom panel discussion just to talk about that.” Although that was incredibly pleasing, it makes me feel like there is a sort of frightening immaturity elsewhere in the industry now, maybe in the whole world, where everybody feels you have to segregate everybody and measure them. Because of this I tend to shy away from the term “diversity” and prefer “inclusion”; diversity is about splitting people up and inclusion is about removing barriers. The latter is definitely what we have worked hard to do at Tête à Tête.
By being inclusive, we have had some really outstanding works. Vahan Salorian’s Boys of Paradise (2016), an immersive opera about the highs and lows of gay clubbing with words by Dominic Kimberlin, was really outstanding. We were better funded then and ended up co-producing a longer run of it in the venue, Egg London nightclub.
What does a Tête à Tête audience look like?
Our audience is conspicuously younger than if you were sitting in the stalls at the Royal Opera, but it varies enormously from show to show, depending on the subject matter and the venue.
For the first year or two, at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, I was programming the festival quite carefully to encourage people to come for a whole evening’s entertainment. They could enjoy fantastic food at the venue and then you might have three different shows called something like “Starters”, “Mains” and “Afters”: the seed of a project; completed works; and then a bit of fun with some people jamming.
Now we’re at the Cockpit in Marylebone, which is much smaller, and although it’s a great venue, it has a cap on the number of people in the building as a whole. This means you have to leave quite a long gap between shows, so it becomes less of a full evening and more about one-off events.
Can you share how you’re supporting LGBTQIA+ works at this year’s festival?
This year we’ve programmed a great many LGBTQIA+ themed shows; Plastic Bodies tackles the commodification of the physicality of women in opera, ie a group of queer (and humorous) opera makers fed up with the unrealistic expectations of body obsession in opera today, while Fierce Love remembers love in the shadow of AIDS in the early ‘90s.
Bermondsey 1983 tells the story of the infamous Bermondsey by-election and gay Labour candidate Peter Tatchell, an event I remember well and which is now a piece of history. It was supposed to happen as a community opera in 2020, which I think was a very brave choice, but will instead be presented professionally at this year’s festival.
Another show, 1944: Home Fires is an excerpt from a 24-hour opera called A Gay Century by an awesome group of pioneering gay elders who are determined to tell the story from the point of view of being gay in the last century.
Other operas include Songs of Descent, a queer take on the myth of Persephone; The Trans Lady Sings; When the Sky Cracks Open, an opera inspired by a master and slave discovered embalmed by the ashes of Pompeii; Displaced! and A Woolwich Arsenal Opera, which focuses on a same-sex couple with a child living in Woolwich at the time Arsenal FC was displaced to North London.
Finally, what are your plans for the future?
We’re continuing with the festival in London, with the intention of adding venues in Newcastle (where Timothy Burke, our Music Director lives) and Cornwall, where I live, though that is proving quite tricky as yet.
We’re aiming to build on our large-scale community project in Newcastle with an opera gala next spring. We’re going to start a community choir with the idea of building a large community opera, once everyone’s ready. We might do that in Cornwall too.
Next year we’re doing another project with the Royal College of Music and looking at producing Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse with the Minack Theatre – that’s enough I think!
Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, the UK’s largest festival of new opera, will run from 27 August to 13 September 2023 in venues across London. With a mission to reach new audiences, support artists’ development and to extend the boundaries of traditional opera, the festival offers audiences the chance to experience a myriad of opera.
Championing new works on YouTube
MyNewOpera is a YouTube channel set up by Tête à Tête. It gives artists and companies a platform to showcase their new operas and provides an open source where visitors can search by composers, themes, artists and synopsis.
To find out more, visit www.youtube.com/@mynewopera6743/about