Real opera in an imaginary world

Tête à Tête opera festival artistic director Bill Bankes-Jones is skeptical about online performances – but thinks there may be an alternative approach. 

Two weeks before the lockdown, I triggered a creative reaction to the crisis online via the hashtag #coronachorus on Twitter. You can still watch those videos now, many very funny and joyous, some poignant, all of them trashy and in some way playful.

I’m now dubious of “art in isolation”. We’ve had a lot of musical ensembles playing together on what amounts to a click track – neither making the music by reacting to each other live, nor reacting to and with a live audience. It’s impressive, but not the real thing.

Every one of us who has made the arts our life has done so because some of our most cherished memories are of live performances. Our lifeblood has become the chasing of more of these memories, and the drive to create similar memories for others. The intense power of these moments comes from a company of artists in close proximity with their audience all affecting each other together in the same space in real time.

The videos that musicians are currently circulating can be pleasing, but much of the energy that would normally be effervescing between artists and audience is instead spent fighting to remain creative within the confines of the technology.

We’ve all outsourced our senses of direction to new technology. We plug in the satnav, Google Maps directs us, and off we go. More alarmingly, we’ve also outsourced many of our memories. As a formerly very bookish ‘analogue native’, I used to carry a vast amount of information in my head. It’s still there, but if you asked me to put a date on a precise historical event I’d probably resort to Google or Wikipedia.

Our minds are no longer independent biological phenomena, but have become digital/biological hybrids.

When you go to the opera you return to being 100% human. There is no internet. The power of multiple human beings pooling their creativity, attention, transmission and reception in infinitely complex interactions creates something very intricate and miraculous. We love that. We live for it. We cannot get it online.

As all our worlds imploded, so did a major production we were building with Tête à Tête. Each composer/librettist team involved sent us their pitches, which included draft music, background literature and source material. This sent designer Sarah Jane Booth and I off on a research process, researching lunatic asylums in the 1800s, the architecture of Manhattan apartments in the 1940s, rituals around food, cruise ships in the 1910s, and fencing through the ages.

Then I suddenly had a eureka moment, where I realised that there is an answer to my gloom about online performance and how to make opera in isolation.

Every single opera production is a colossal act of the imagination. There is a huge amount of preparation and paraphernalia behind each show that the audience never sees. What the creative team construct is a vastly intricate real opera production, and the process of rehearsal and performance represents the emergence of this into the real world.

We may or may not be able to make Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival into live performances as planned at the Cockpit and elsewhere in September, but if we embark on the voyage in that direction we’ll certainly have a vast amount of process to share. We can make a real opera festival, and it can be very vivid in our imaginations.

How will this work? We’re building a web page for every show in Tête å Tête: The Opera Festival 2020 right now. This will include the usual listings stuff and hopeful performance date. As set out in my Manifesto, I’m also encouraging artists to share their process and their imaginings for the show, both through this web page and off line.

Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival has always been about inviting audiences to come together with artists so the latter can share the development of their work. By forcing open our paint boxes and putting them on display before the image is complete, we’ve a chance to explore just how open we can become about our work.

With 20% of UK population having no access to the internet, I’m very keen those people are not excluded, that we are making a festival for all. We’re still exploring how this sharing of process might be done offline, and relishing the challenge.

Keep track of our progress online and maybe we’ll even also reach you offline!