Heads up – Artistic director Bill Bankes-Jones on how Tête à Tête festival is making opera for the modern world 

Bill Bankes-Jones
Bill Bankes-Jones

Part of the joy of spearheading a small artist-led company are the moments of great intensity in the middle of peak periods. When the festival is in full swing, it’s a marvellous experience to be firing on all cylinders but it’s also when vital strategies for the future reveal themselves. What has been a great joy for us at  Tête à Tête (and we undertook a survey on this thoroughly a couple of years ago) is that we work with an exceptionally inclusive pool of artists. In one week of our most recent festival alone, we performed 13 world premieres, of these eight were by women and five were by BAME artists. This is our normal, Tête à Tête exists to make the widest range of artists welcome.

Having blown my own trumpet so loudly, I also have to say that what was missing in our survey results was any significant input from disabled artists and, to some degree, socio-economic barriers to participation still exist. We’ve addressed the latter in a small way by trying to make sure everyone who works for us is paid. However, we still have some way to go in recruitment to ensure disabled artists come to work with us at Tête à Tête.

We are motivated to make this happen and I’ve been meeting every disabled opera maker I can find to talk through how we can be more open. We’re most definitely going to try to improve in this capacity. Being more accessible is a long-haul ambition for us, though we can only deploy at Tête à Tête the skills delivered to us by the training and education system that leads people to opera in the first place.

Being open in this way is at the core of our ethos. Openness is an important agenda to have as our main opera companies are going through painful changes as their institutional misogyny and racism becomes ever more obvious to the public.

There are many initiatives around at the moment that are touting to support diversity in opera – this makes me very uncomfortable. Some of these scheme appear to be about splitting people up and allocating portions. It seems to me that so long as the focus remains on single protected characteristics, there will be the risk of omissions.

For example, I really don’t want to pledge a 50/50 ratio of women/men at Tête à Tête when A) women make up the majority of our leading artists this year (therefore, they are in excess of 50%), and B) I also cherish the very important 2% non-binary opera makers that have worked with us through Tête à Tête’s history.

It is surely much better to welcome everyone, rather than to divide, apportion and allot? I’m thrilled this is so apparent in Arts Council England’s Draft Strategy 2020-2030. I very much hope they will be fiercer in enforcing its delivery.

We’ve had a tough few years but also a magical few years with Tête à Tête opera festival in London. On the bright side, the huge personal growth of the artists who pass through our ramshackle portals, and the inclusive nature of this group, is a great source of pride to us. Yet, the reality is that it is tough to make Tête à Tête happen. And it’s becoming increasingly tougher.

These issues are all about money, really. Beyond our ACE regular funding, the huge success of our festival has been thanks to the wonderful support of trusts and foundations, and to a lesser extent, individuals. Now, though, money is far scarcer than ever before.

The 2008 recession took a long time to bite. Some key funders have bitten the dust. Like everyone, trusts are far more regulated and, dare I say, less trusting. For example, we lose income as initiatives focus on individual composers rather than their dreams, with the slightly saddening side effect that even the smallest work is now incentivised. With no one stepping in to fund production costs, a solo clarinet piece becomes a much more attractive prospect than a fully staged opera, however small that opera may be.

8 – A Steampunk Opera © Claire Shovelton
8 – A Steampunk Opera © Claire Shovelton

In spite of all this, we soldier on. Right now, it’s thrilling to be able to deliver a festival at all. On 29 July, for example, we presented 8 – A Steampunk Opera by a composer/producer who came to me last year – aged just 18. Young Charli Eglinton is an absolute force of nature, with our support, she has made this opera all happen herself. Her independent production is an opera that collides with musical theatre and 1920s jazz, with a mechanical, steampunk twist.

This is typical of the Tête à Tête opera festival experience. Over the years it has triggered a huge and growing fringe for small-scale new opera works in the UK. This replenishing of talent is vital in the opera ecology as bigger companies focus on the great antique canon of opera, seldom make new works and therefore don’t have the skills to nurture these. Recently the conductor of our Pop Up Operas told me a story I hear again and again: that the first thing he conducted was for us. It was a huge breakthrough for him and really advanced his professional career. As artistic director that is what makes putting on a festival of new work, delivered by new talent, worthwhile.

Tête à Tête took place in London from 24 July to 10 August.

Apollo's Mission © Claire Shovelton
Apollo’s Mission © Claire Shovelton