Coronavirus: Bill Bankes-Jones Blog

Friday, 20th March 2020

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:


Tulse Luper, Peter Greenaway’s imagined character who I first encountered in a wonderful exhibition showing his life through the contents of lots of his suitcases at Compton Verney.


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.


Online is not what we do. What we love about theatre is coming together, not being apart. I hope that this is put well in The Manifesto. It’s also beautifully described in this video.


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!


Bill Bankes-Jones

Artistic Director, Tête à Tête



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,