Guest #ForArtists Blog: Martin Bussey: Stepping Into Your Light – The Tête à Tête Experience

Thursday, 25th March 2021

As part of our #ForArtists offering, we’re inviting past Festival artists to share their experiences, and tell you how their opera became a reality. In today’s blog, Martin Bussey reflects on how creating work at the Festival gave him new creative possibilities.


It’s easy to see Tête à Tête as a festival where you can get your work performed. This is, of course, what it is, and it is gloriously comprehensive, encompassing the fairly conservative (me) to the off-the-wall innovative. Where it offers so much more than performance opportunities is in pushing personal boundaries by experiencing the approaches, values and ultimately the finished works of others. This was so true of the 2020 season, where regular zoom sessions opened up the creative processes of diverse groups.


I’ve been fortunate to experience Tête à Tête twice, through my chamber pieces, Mary’s Hand (2018) and Timeless Figure (2020). 


Back in the mists of time, I was an opera singer, RNCM-trained, and set out into the opera world of the 1980s (in a BBC archive somewhere is my R3 broadcast as the eponymous Dragon of Wantley). My path took a different direction though, particularly into choral and vocal composition. Working with mezzo Clare McCaldin (McCaldin Arts) to create a piece about Mary Tudor in Mary’s Hand drew me back into the operatic world. The 2018 Tête à Tête Festival saw two performances to full audiences in Holy Cross Church. Working with Clare and eventual librettist Di Sherlock taught me to collaborate and, the key requisite, compromise. And learn that a dress could be the star of a show (see the Mary’s Hand video!)


The experience unlocked a whole raft of possibilities and skills: creating with and learning from other artists; linking ideas to times/places; working with a limited, so carefully chosen, group of instruments (three is ideal); and having confidence in my own dramatic as well as musical judgement.


Mary’s Hand had, from my angle, been formed largely ‘outside’ of Tête à Tête. Timeless Figure was conceived with performance at Tête à Tête in mind. Well, it was first conceived in the Sainsbury’s café in Whitchurch, Shropshire. The murals showing how Joyce clocks, made in the town since 1665, spread throughout the world immediately suggested an ideal vehicle for a music theatre piece about Time for rising baritone Peter Edge, a Whitchurch native. Inspired by the ‘have a go’ ethos of Tête à Tête I found myself writing my own text (with a little help from Tennyson and others). Having written it I took my first steps into pre-recorded sound by having one movement recorded to be played back later in the work. The local element in the work was enhanced by a particular aspect of Tête à Tête’s support in promotion. Though few were likely to make a trip to London, Tête à Tête’s delivery of a pack of postcards of the main production image enabled me to interest local supporters, not just to watch the stream, which some have, but also to be interested in the eventual Whitchurch performance.  


I knew from the outset that a visual element was vital in Timeless Figure, to match ‘the dress’ in Mary’s Hand perhaps. The idea of photography stimulated by the text, but avoiding literal expression, came into the mix. The change in librettist I experienced in Mary’s Hand prepared me for the need to change photographer when my initial collaborator went to the North Pole (this is truth). Having found an ideal collaborator in Laurel Turton (who had photographed Mary’s Hand for Tête à Tête – there’s no escaping Tête à Tête!) we then even coped with her decamping to the US. In fact, this opened a significant dimension in the work. Images of American cities and landscapes unrelated to Joyce brought a universality alongside Laurel’s vivid re-imaginings of some Joyce images. Hopefully the film of Timeless Figure shows how creative the collaboration became. 


The role of Tête à Tête in enabling performance then came to the fore. Most importantly, in providing a venue for performance, in The Cockpit Theatre, where, as well as enabling playback of pre-recorded sounds, projection was possible. I hadn’t a clue how this worked. Of course, Laurel did, but she was still in the US, limited by Covid restrictions. The technical support of Tête à Tête was fantastic and ideally suited to my preferred style – bring the kit and the operator and we’ll see to the rest. This is the enabling ethos of Tête à Tête at its best. As was the focused and undefeated approach to Covid restrictions. ‘You can do what you like as long as no-one moves and everyone is appropriately distanced’ was in many ways a positive production stimulus for Timeless Figure. The singer and three instruments had to listen and engage in a very different way to normal, which produced a heightened sense of collaboration. Having found Covid-secure rehearsal and recording spaces in Manchester, there was a sense of sheer joy at actually working evident in the six young freelancers involved in rehearsal: singer, players, sound producer and projectionist. This itself was a significant element in the production’s success. Even my first long-distance drives in six months, to transport the marimba to London and back in a day, added something.


The results are on film, but the impact of Tête à Tête doesn’t stop there. An important aspect of the diversity of Tête à Tête is that it develops the confidence that your own work is viewed by others as part of that diversity, that others are interested in what you are doing. In this mutual interest and generosity of support lies a key element of Tête à Tête’s impact. For me, a significant experience was Formidability Opera’s focus on accessibility – it’s a big regret to me that I didn’t put subtitles on Timeless Figure for example. And you never know where these experiences may lead. Currently my focus is on a piece inspired by Dicken’s view of disability in the character of Mr Dick in David Copperfield