15th May 2020
After two months of skating around on very thin ice, it’s very exciting indeed to have put together a programme for Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival this summer. Key to being able to do this, was writing The Manifesto. As long as I was asking artists to commit themselves, their imaginations, and their energy and their resources to something that, thanks to coronavirus has become very fragile and may very well not happen, everything felt wrong, impossible, unfair, full of financial and administrative pitfalls, and very difficult in every way.
Deep down, I knew there was a way to get over this by proposing that we build a festival in the genuine hope that it will happen in September at The Cockpit and a handful of other venues, but also in the full knowledge that it may not, it may have to be postponed, or may have to take place entirely in an imagined world. I knew that the thought that we are definitely making a festival wherever it will happen would give more security and foundation to be creative than not planning anything at all until we know all the givens. But I was really fumbling to frame this.
The solution came to me in a really inspiring conversation on Monday with festival artists Naomi Woo and Sophie Seita. They launched a new and very inspiring project at me, made me think about the festival as a whole, and really helped me articulate what I was fumbling for.
Their project is an imagined world in which Hildegard von Bingen founded a garden society which continues to this day, and has all kinds of manifestations and ramifications through the ages, housing all kinds of narratives and situations, for example composer Priaulx Rainier being both Barbara Hepworth’s gardener near me here in West Cornwall, an accomplished composer in her own right, but also a scion of Hildegard’s garden society.
Naomi and Sophie haven’t yet come to any conclusions about their end product. They may never do. Their imagined world could be glimpsed in any number of ways – web stuff, performances, images, books, concerts, a garden society that still exists to this day, actual gardens, seed swaps, adopted plants. In fact, you can connect with anything in an imagined universe in just as many ways as you can connect with things in the real world.
This made me think of some other parallel universes. We talked about them a bit:
The wreck of The Unbelievable, the imaginary shipwreck which was the source of Damien Hirst’s exhibition in Venice a couple of years ago.
Oliver Curry, poorly represented on our website but the opera singer whose voice was tragically lost forever and who performed with a speech synthesising machine in a couple of our festivals and took nearly everyone in. [And who was completely fictitious and invented by Paul Barker.]
Ossian and Ossianic Literature (the latter, amazingly, not having even a Wikipedia page.)
Here, it starts getting really interesting. Ossian was the centrepiece of a whole imagined world, despite never having existed, and with all kinds of paraphernalia and manifestations, yet two and a half centuries before the internet even existed. To repeat, you can connect with things in an imaginary universe in just as many ways as you can connect with things in the real world. When you get that, it’s incredible.
Even though ten days before UK Lockdown I triggered a tiny Twitter storm myself of online reaction to the crisis in #Coronachorus, I’m increasingly weary of online art, ‘art in isolation’ and the growing feeling that the tail is wagging the dog. Everyone is obsessing about “online” and forgetting that this can only ever be a poor relation to the real thing.
What’s so exciting about Ossian, Hildegard’s Garden Society, the wreck of The Unbelievable, Oliver Curry and maybe now Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020 is they are all real things in an imaginary world. None of these are determined by their form, and indeed most exist in many manifestations, in stories, dramas, books, paintings, sound recordings, and yes indeed, online content. In an imaginary world, it’s of course possible for artists and audiences still to come together, perform, watch, listen, react, stimulate each other and join in that supremely energising human spiral that will never ever exist on the internet.
I’ve convinced myself that if we could launch a festival that draws its inspiration from an imagined world, or maybe takes place in an imagined world, or if it is just an imagined rather than virtual or online festival, and everyone could understand that and buy into it, then this could be a really wonderful thing. Hence The Manifesto. I’ve circulated this to maybe 1/3-1/2 of our festival artists now, and been thrilled with the response so far. Some ask for explanation, some want to sign up straight away, but everyone, after some discussion, seems to get it. I hope you do too.
Our real Festival in an imaginary world means we can go ahead and plan, even though these plans may end up being cancelled. I’m not encouraging anyone yet to commit to building huge teams and raising funds. But we do all have something to work towards, to look forward to.
If this festival doesn’t happen exactly as planned in September, merely by creating the programme, we together will have something that could maybe be postponed en bloc. It feels like by creating this programme, we’ll be able to move faster if it has to be rescheduled than were we starting from scratch.
By committing to a series of premieres, it gives us the chance to extend and develop our usual mentoring for each company/group of artists, offering help where they need it, with dramaturgy, musical issues, casting, technical challenges.
A real festival in an imaginary world also gives us the chance, by creating a web page for each premiere, to open up the process more to artists and audiences. I’m encouraging everyone to use this portal to offer a glimpse into our creative work, posting videos, sound recordings, draft libretti and scores, literary and visual references that inspire and feed into our productions, designs, storyboards, whatever we are happy to share.
In that way, we have a chance to show what we are really good at, to display our dreams of what we’d really like to do rather than making work compromised by circumstance, and in particular dominated by a medium that is not actually our medium – online.
Welcome to the world of the imagination, watch this space!
Artistic Director, Tête à Tête
Tête à Tête’s Real Opera Festival in An Imaginary World
Right at the start of all this chaos, two weeks before lockdown, I triggered a creative reaction to the crisis online via the hashtag #coronachorus on Twitter. You can still those videos now, many very funny and joyous, some poignant, all of them trashy and in some way playful.
I’m afraid to say now that I’m already sick of “art in isolation”. We’ve now had a lot of musical ensembles playing together on what amounts to a click track – so not making the music by reacting to each other live, and of course without 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 precious, cherished memories are of live performances. These things are so important that 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.
What I’ll remember of “art in isolation” and the mass migration to online is the image of different instrumentalists in boxes wearing their own clothes and performing in their own homes struggling to keep the “ensemble” together with something already fixed. Results can be pleasing, but much of the energy that would normally be spiralling exponentially between humans, both artist and audience, is instead burned up fighting to remain creative within the confines of the technology.
There’s no doubt that many of us have outsourced our senses of direction to new technology. We plug in the satnav, we get Google Maps to direct us, and off we go. More alarmingly, we have also outsourced much 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 in broad brushstrokes, but if you asked me to quote screeds of Shakespeare or put a date on a precise historical event I’d most likely resort to Google or Wikipedia. Most people now store their facts on the internet in this way.
Our minds are no longer independent biological phenomena, but have become digital/biological hybrids.
When you go to the opera, you unplug, you return to 100% human. There is no internet. The the power of multiple human beings pooling their creativity, attention, transmission and reception in infinitely complex interactions creates something very intricate, wonderful and miraculous that new technology, as yet, can’t even approach. We love that. We live for it. And we’re not getting it, we cannot get it online.
Concurrent with #coronachorus, as all our worlds imploded, so did a major production we were building up to with Tête à Tête. We were well into the design process, so we already had a vast repository of information and inspiration. We had the words and scores of each piece; pitches from each composer/librettist team some including movies, renditions of draft music, background literature, source material in the form of biography, books, movies. This in turn sent designer Sarah Jane Booth and I off on a huge research process finding how lunatic asylums looked in the nineteenth century, the architecture of Manhattan apartments of the white poor in the 1940s, rituals around food and cooking, cruise ships in the 1910s, fencing through the ages, huge numbers of images of costumes, buildings, people, etc etc.
If I had a eureka moment, I think it was realising that there IS an answer to my gloom about online performance and how to make opera in isolation, and it was lying under my nose in the interrupted process of this production.
Until the first night is over, every single opera production is a colossal act of the imagination. There is a huge amount of preparation, of intellectual, imaginative, literary, musical and pictorial paraphernalia behind each show that the audience doesn’t ever get to see at all. Well – maybe some costume drawing in the progamme or a sponsor’s evening showing the set in the rehearsal room, but this is always the tip of the iceberg. What the creative team hold is a vastly intricate real opera production, and the procsess of rehearsal and performance represents the emergence of this, with the input of many performers and then even more audience, into the real world.
My eureka was that we may or may not be able to make our live Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival performances as planned at the Cockpit and elsewhere in September, but if we embark on the voyage in that direction, at least we’ll have a vast amount of process we can share. We CAN make a real opera festival, and it can be every bit as vivid as usual in our imaginations. If we get lucky, it may make it into the real world, but if not, this is an exercise worth doing in itself.
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, as ever, include the usual listings stuff, title, description, personnel involved, hopeful performance date. As set out in my Manifesto, I’m also very encouraging artists to share their process, their dreams, their imaginings for the show as never before, 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. In some ways, by forcing open our paintboxes and putting them on display before the image is complete, this is an opportunity rather than a crisis, 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 also 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 your eyes peeled at www.tete-a-tete.org.uk, and maybe we’ll even also reach you offline!
Bill Bankes-Jones 29th May 2020
9th April 2020
Together, we have moved very rapidly into deeply uncertain times.
It is with great sadness that our collaboration with the Royal College of Music, Decline and Fall, due to take place this May has had to be cancelled.
These six operas by RCM students are really outstanding. We were very pleased with the point we had reached with the design process and other preparations. My heart goes out to all the students and professional staff who have put so much into this project.
As far as Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020 is concerned I am still beavering away with our other partners to make the festival happen. I’m currently programming the remaining slots in September. I’m aiming to complete the process very soon. Do please come to me if you have a project you think might like to nestle under our wing, and absolutely let’s keep talking if we already are.
In the meantime, do check out our very short term reaction to this epidemic, #Coronachorus, a way we can be together from our isolation. More contributions are of course very much more than welcome.
Very best wishes,