Welcome to Your First Festival – an ongoing series of articles where I (Leo, the Marketing Director) try to demystify the process of participating in Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, from fundraising to casting to sorting out your lighting.
It will draw on conversations with my colleagues, dozens of Tête à Tête artists, and my own experiences presenting work at the Festival (and failed attempts to do so) since 2017. Hopefully it will tell you everything you need to know.
If there’s something you want to know more about, just let us know via social media.
The Beginning – Becoming Part Of The Festival
What is Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival? It’s our annual festival of new work, featuring everything from first-time composers trying on operatic shoes to long-established names looking for a place to test something entirely off-the-wall.
And how do you get there?
It depends. Lots of people do just get in touch saying “I WANT TO BE IN THE FESTIVAL!” But that’s not the only way.
Some people say that they’d like to be in the Festival, but need help finding collaborators. We do keep details of all those people, from composers seeking librettists to singers seeking directors, and plenty of them do eventually collaborate under our umbrella.
We want everyone who gets in touch with us to have a tailored approach. What works for someone just starting to dip a toe into opera at music college won’t work for someone with decades of experience in the nightclub scene wanting to remix genres.
The path to the Festival starts, therefore, with a conversation with our Artistic Director Bill Bankes-Jones. What’s most helpful to that person at that time? And what do they have in their heart that they really want to get across. We have a lot of experience developing artists, and it might be that for one person we’d advise some places to get useful training, while we’ll help another by matchmaking them with a librettist/composer/director/puppeteer…
Lots of these people end up going off to do other great things, and not only with us. But plenty of them go on to produce work at the Festival. That might be in three to six months, or after three to six years. Some companies – especially those with marginalised artists or from well outside London – may need extra support from Tête à Tête to ensure they can bring a show to fruition.
We call the process of building each festival ‘programming’. Momentum in that process really picks up in the autumn before each Festival. It takes until about March/April to have enough clarity about fundraising, venues, pandemics, and so on to work out how many shows we have space for and to have an idea of who might belong where.
This stage happens behind-the-scenes, but it’s really important for us to get it right. When we make the final decision about programming, we want to be sure that:
1. Each show has a space to fit its needs. A dance-opera will fit better at The Place than The Cockpit; an intimate one-singer show which wants close engagement with its audience will probably fit better at The Cockpit than Kings Place.
2. We can give each group of artists the support they need to get the maximum possible benefit from the Festival. While some artists are very self-sufficient, others need more from us in terms of mentoring in particular areas.
We don’t want to programme people if we can’t give them the support they need. Nor do we want to put our small team in a position where giving everyone the support they need comes at the cost of their wellbeing. However, we always do as much as we can.
But perhaps you’re already laser-focused on getting into the Festival, and you’re reading this because you’ve got a really clear idea of what you want to do, and just want to know how to maximise your chances of joining the Festival.
“How do I make a great pitch to Tête à Tête?”
Put simply, just be honest. Beyond that, as someone who’s seen a lot of shows come through the process, and been through it a few times myself, there’s three bits of advice I would give:
1. Keep the conversation going. One thing I didn’t realise when I was starting out was that the path to Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival isn’t like most festivals’, where once you’ve submitted your application you’re kept on file and will be considered by their team at the appropriate time.
Because Tête à Tête tailors our process to each artist, and has enquiries throughout the year rather than in a fixed period of time, it’s much more of an ongoing conversation. Once you’ve made your initial enquiry, let us know when your idea’s developed, or send a follow-up email every now and again to keep us updated about the progress of your project. That bit of advice goes doubly for people who might worry that they’re being too pushy, or stepping out of line. We want you to keep us posted if you still want to work with us.
2. Realise what Tête à Tête does. Tête à Tête is not just a festival of new opera. We’re a festival of new opera focused on artist development. If you look at our programming we’re not just focused on glamorous world premieres. What we have is lots of experiments by people trying something new for them.
So don’t approach us swaggering about why you’re great and why your fully-fledged opera is already perfect. While both may be true, the real question to ask yourself is “what can Tête à Tête do for me?” Because if all you want is for us to showcase your work and build your career… then we’re probably not the best fit for you.
However, if you’re a performance artist who wants to try opera but has no idea where to start? A composer writing their first opera but needs help building a team and learning how to produce? A grizzled veteran who maybe, just maybe, has invented a whole new form of opera, and you need a space to try it out, and a great community to talk to about it?
That’s the kind of pitch we like to listen to. Because that’s the kind of person we know we can help.
3. Finally, realise what Tête à Tête loves.
We know that bringing a show to the Festival is a lot of work; work that will be easier if someone loves the piece. We also know the kind of opera sector we want to contribute to filled with generous, kind, and collaborative people who care about the work they do.
In Bill’s words, “The one criterion for inclusion really is, do they have in their heart something they care about and really feel they must get across through making a new opera, so much more important than career building and so on.”
That’s your take-home message. But if you want to read a case study, come on a trip with me down memory lane.
Case Study: The Perfect Opera vs. Come Bargain With Uncanny Things
When I first pitched a show to Bill (The Perfect Opera, back in late 2017), I was still training, rather terrified of him, and therefore went in with a heavily-rehearsed pitch about the show’s unique selling points and artistic innovations. Rather than being open and honest, I fluffed myself up like a frightened cat and didn’t admit where I could use help, and why I loved that show.
The Perfect Opera was not programmed that year.
I kept in touch with Bill, however, and let him know about a scratch performance the composer (Peter Davis) and I put together, sent him a recording, and let him know about our plans to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe – if only we could have a London preview to test out if it was actually funny. [i.e. what could Tête à Tête do for us?]
In 2019, The Perfect Opera was presented as part of Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival. It was a really useful test run before the Fringe, but in many ways by presenting an all-but-finished piece I didn’t get as much out of it as I could have.
Compare that to Come Bargain With Uncanny Things.
In 2021, I harangued Bill about the amazing work Parabolic Theatre did in immersive interactive theatre, and how cool it would be if I could pull off an opera in the same style; how it would undo old hierarchies between writer, performer, and audience; how it would simply be weird and fun! By that point, I’d become comfortable showing how much I loved my work to Bill, and realised that I wasn’t making a commercial pitch, nor an academic presentation.
I was just showing that the show meant a lot to me as a craftsperson, an artist, and a human being. Even though I was much less polished, Bill tells me that it was a much easier decision to programme Come Bargain With Uncanny Things, because to him it felt like it was more from the heart (myself, I maintain that my heart is filled with pantomime camels falling in love with Shakespearean tragic heroes, even if I’ve got better at trusting my instincts since then).
From my own point of view, it was also much better for me as an artist. I was very clear about what Tête à Tête could do for me (give the opportunity to test out a new kind of opera, give useful feedback, and see how audiences reacted to being given control). That meant that I could focus on making the most of a unique opportunity to experiment, and enjoy passionate discussions with other artists about the best way to do it, and why it mattered to me.
Plus, of course, finding out all about their work.
In short, don’t worry about being polished. Tête à Tête collectively has about a century’s worth of experience developing artists. We know that being a passionate opera-maker doesn’t mean you’re some slick, slideshow-wielding superstar.
Take your time, relax, and let us know why the piece matters to you, and what you hope to get out of it.
That’s our favourite thing to hear. Just let us know.