Bill Bankes-Jones on the twelfth TÍte ‡ TÍte Opera Festival

‘Inclusivity’ is something that Bill – founder and Artistic Director of TÍte ‡ TÍte
, and Chair of the UK’s network of opera companies, the Opera and Music
Theatre Forum – returns to several times during our conversation. As soon
as you give things or people ‘labels’, you categorise them, put them in
boxes, segregate them. And, such separation creates – perhaps
subconsciously, perhaps deliberately, I suggest – a sense of ‘them and us’:
a duality formed of those who feel they can enter the box, and those who
believe it’s not for them, or that they are excluded. Bill agrees, noting
that opera, certainly in the last ten years or so, has frequently marketed
itself on ‘exclusivity’. The very buildings in which it is performed – even
newly designed or refurbished venues- are often intended to create a sense
of stepping into a different world in which the stratification is cultural,
social and architectural – a world with its own codes and rituals, and one
where one either feels ‘superior’ because one knows the rules of the game,
or ‘inferior’ because one doesn’t.

Certainly, a glance at this year’s TÍte ‡ TÍte programme suggests
that the Festival exists to take opera – the art
form, its creators and its performers, its audiences – out of its ‘box’,
and in some cases place it quite literally ‘on the street’. Alongside
performances in venues such as The Place and RADA Studios, the sound and
spectacle of this year’s TÍte ‡ TÍte productions will resound
across Coal Drop’s Yard and other public spaces around King’s Cross and
environs. There are site-specific pieces which will take place in secret
locations. And, this year, the

Pop Up Operas

– which came to life as a more financially viable and creatively valuable
way of generating publicity and audiences than paying for lots of ad space
on Tube billboards – are back for the first time since 2015, bringing opera
to libraries, community centres, street corners public spaces and foyers
all over Camden and King’s Cross. One such Pop Up is Aliens in the Street with music by Vahan Salorian and words by
Dominic Kimberlin, which Bill himself is directing, and which presents an
‘alien conspiracy theorist trying to sell her new invention on the streets
– a pair of glasses that help you see the extra-terrestrial life that is
walking amongst us – when she encounters a mysterious stranger in need of

There’s a panoply of opera on offer – but it’s not opera ‘as you know it’,
or think you know it. In Coal Drop’s Yard,

Madame Butterflop

, a so-called ‘ruination’ of Puccini’s tale of colonial callousness and
oriental innocence, will be followed the next evening by a performance by

Ayanna Witter-Johnson

, who is described as ‘a rare exception to the rule that classical and
alternative R&B music cannot successfully co-exist’.

One Art

, Paula M. Kimper’s settings of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, reflects on
loss. In

Be a Doll

Alexa Dexa from the USA uses vocals, toy instruments and electronics to
create a ‘toy opera’ in which a woman’s struggle to attain the submissive
perfectionism to which the world conditions her, leaves her unable to
determine whether she is a woman or a doll.

Hildegard: Visions

by Nwando Ebizie with Tom Richards and LorÈ Lixenberg , a ‘sensory
opera-happening’, brings together Hildegard von Bingen, Haitian vodou and
neurodiversity and promises to transport its audience ‘through a journey
from intimacy to ecstasy’.

Youth and age are juxtaposed: a dance-theatre-opera collaboration,

Of Body and Ghost

, between dance maker Yolande Snaith, composer Kris Apple, writer/dramaturg
Roswitha Gerlitz and vocalist Barbara Byers is ‘an ethereal rite of passage
of the process of aging’;

Growth of the Silk

(music/words William Hearne, words Lavinia Murray) is ‘an original
fairytale about a girl’s misguided wish for long lustrous hair which leaves
her ultimately crushed under the weight of the unstoppable growth. The
latter sounds to me, rather like Be a Doll, as if it might have
been the subject of a Carol Ann Duffy poem, as does ROBE, a
‘posthuman fantasia’ about cartography, cyberpunk and A.I. in which a woman
charged with ‘mapping’ a superintelligence, EDINBURGH, grows close to the
creature and weaves into the map ‘things that cannot be known or spoken:
the hidden histories of joy and longing each privately our own.’

Are such productions really ‘opera’, I ask Bill? I recall working with
postgraduate dancers/researchers at London Contemporary Dance School (at
The Place) almost twenty years ago, when the ‘buzz words’ amongst those
creating new dance productions were ‘text’ and ‘film’. If you put movement,
music, voice, text, and theatre together, what do you have? Opera?
Certainly, and with a dismissal of those ‘labels’ again, Bill agrees that
the very hybridity of opera brings all these things together in ways which
can/should, be liberating and inclusive. “If you don’t tell an audience
that they are about to see a ‘contemporary opera’, then they won’t reject
it, they’ll just stop in the street and enjoy it.”

So, I ask Bill, ‘who is TÍte ‡ TÍte for?’ I’m aware that
this question might sound a little confrontational, but it’s not meant to
be. It’s just that, I explain, I experience and enjoy an enormous amount of
opera – and music, dance, theatre – each year (week!), in venues ranging
from grand country houses to

underground tunnels


former newspaper printing-press factories

, but I’m not sure that, excepting individual productions where the
subject-content or performers involved might catch my eye, I would
necessarily be drawn towards the Festival’s offerings.

I’m aware that that probably says more about me than about TÍte ‡ TÍte; but Bill, fortunately, seems to find my question
interesting rather than offensive or provocative. His response suggests
that at the heart of the TÍte ‡ TÍte enterprise are the performers
themselves. And, I guess, that’s where it all started: when, in 1997, after
five years as a staff director at English National Opera, Bill became
frustrated with grand, clunky mechanisms for making opera and with
financial and creative structures which precluded risk, enterprise and a
can-do/will-do/go-getting mentality.

And, so, TÍte ‡ TÍte was born: in its first guise
it was a production company collaborating with the likes of Battersea Arts
Centre, ENO studio, Streetwise Opera and Opera Genesis which aimed to ‘make
things happen’, facilitate new work and foster new relationships. Since
then, TÍte ‡ TÍte has created or enabled over 500 world premieres
involving collectively 10,000 singers, conductors, instrumentalists, sound
engineers, lighting specialists, costume designers, videographers. In 2007
the summer Opera Festival was launched. Subsequently, the company was
awarded a UK Arts Online Award for its online archive of 400+ videos of
every performance hosted or produced since 2008. The TÍte ‡ TÍte
website rightly boasts that it is ‘the largest online video resource for
new opera on the internet, reaching an audience of over 1,000,000 in 155
Countries from Azerbaijan to Uruguay and from Indonesia to Iceland!’

I wonder whether a ‘family’ of performers and creators has developed over
the years, and Bill confirms that to some extent this is the case. But, his
criteria for selecting productions of each year’s Festival are driven by a
few essential principles and values. Bill explains that he isn’t interested
in ‘innovation’ for its own sake – he later confesses to rather liking
those old ‘operatic rituals’ – but instead he’s concerned to facilitate and
sustain new voices which are sincere and driven by genuine belief and
passion. He admits that sometimes the decision to accept a particular
production might be influenced by seemingly arbitrary factors, such as
whether it would offer a creator based outside London their first
opportunity to have their work seen in the capital.

So, my second question is, ‘who watches TÍte ‡ TÍte productions’?’
Bill pulls out his ’phone to show me some photographs of past Cubitt
Session audiences: the images are snapshots of your average London high
street with children perched on their fathers’ shoulders, passers-by and
shoppers lounging in deckchairs, and construction workers peering down from
roof-top workspaces. Will these audiences make the transition from the
street – where the opera literally springs up before their eyes – to a more
‘formal’ TÍte ‡ TÍte venue, or another opera house or festival?
Probably not. Does that matter. No. The oft-repeated mantra about ‘creating
new audiences’ seems irrelevant, or tangential, to Bill; it’s the
here and now that matters. TÍte ‡ TÍte productions might be seen
by up to 5000 people, far more than is usually the case for newly
commissioned work; and the potential audience for the online videos is

Bill notes that the performers are very supportive of each other’s
productions and that they often bring their own audiences with them – and,
of course, they are very adept at using social media to generate interest.
He also comments that frequently individual productions channel quite
‘specialised’ audience interests: he recalls 2015 where the respective
audiences for Helen Parker-Jayne Isibor’s ‘Nigerian pidgin opera’ Song-Queen and for

Sacred Mountain. Incidents in the Life of Queen Nanny of the Maroons

, an opera which presented an epic narrative about the Caribbean ancestors
of the composer, Shirley Thompson, barely exchanged glances as they passed
to and from the performance venue. Finally, he tells me of his surprise,
when an audience survey was undertaken a couple of years ago, to learn that
while TÍte ‡ TÍte audiences predominantly comprised people aged
20-30 years-old, the age-range of those producing the opera was higher, at
30-45 years-old.

So, what Festival productions this year would Bill draw my attention to?
He’s very excited about the two site-specific works being presented, as
individuals open up their homes for the performance of opera. Danish
composer Rasmus Zwicki has been living in London for the last three years,
during which time he has collected ‘notes’ from a communal message board in
his block of flats in Camden, along with junk mail and graffiti: his

Duncan House

uses such texts to chart those three years of Brexit chaos and incumbent
loneliness and isolation. In contrast,


by Francesca Le LohÈ engages with Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki’s
eponymous novel in which a man, whose sexual relationship with his wife is
unfulfilling after twenty years of marriage, writes about his fantasies in
his diary. Hoping that his wife will read it, he locks it in a drawer and
leaves the key on the floor, but this only inspires her to begin her own
diary, which she knows he will read and which she uses to deliberately
mislead him.

In Tanizaki’s novella, the two spouses share a life and a living space, but
they never meet or b each other. As readers, we traverse an architectural
space in which worlds, souls, intersect but are ever isolated. Le LohÈ’s
opera, which was first performed in Tokyo, will be staged in a private
residence around which the audience will move, voyeurs of the unfolding
intimacies of the drama. Bill explains that different music by varied
ensembles positioned around the building will overlap and the audience will
be aware of co-existing but separate musical and personal worlds.
Interestingly, and coming back to the question of audiences, Bill recounts
an incident at a launch event for this production, which is being mounted
in the private home of an architect: when asked whether they were regular
opera-goers, just a couple of the 70 or so people present ‘reluctantly’
raised their hands. There were about 40 Japanese among the attendees whose
interest in THE?KEY was understandable. The others? They
were there to view the architecture and interior design, Bill laughs.

One thing about TÍte ‡ TÍte productions is that they can respond
to the moment. Bill tells me that a couple of years ago Brexit and
immigration were strong themes. This year, the environment looms large in
several productions such as Catherine Kontz’s Pop Up Hand Clap
which sets a libretto by the composer’s seven-year old daughter, Emmylou
V‰xby, which engages with ‘the choreographic and linguistic potential of
children’s hand-clapping games in music and space, exploring a narrative
around the eco environment’.

Bill notes that in recent years opera, in the capital at least, has
frequently adopted a ‘West End theatre mentality’, relying on productions
which are marketed as ‘celebrity-led’, with ‘big names’ brought in, often
from other art forms, in the quest for increased audiences. Another new
phenomenon has been the introduction of cinema relays from the ROH, the Met
and other big houses. Oddly, such broadcasts bring ‘exclusivity’ and
’inclusivity’ into close proximity. And, I point out to Bill, they bring
opera ‘up close’: “TÍte ‡ TÍte,” he adds, with a wry smile. One of the
joys, evidently, for Bill of TÍte ‡ TÍte’s work is that it creates
a genuine intimacy between opera and audience, even in a public street:
something that is noticeably lacking, he observes, when one moves from a
rehearsal space where the creative team and cast work in close proximity,
to a conventional performance space, where performers and audiences are
often separated by disruptive distances.

TÍte ‡ TÍte is the future of opera,” announces the company’s
website. And, I come away from my conversation with Bill feeling that –
especially given the name of this website – I really ought to have
taken and be taking more notice. Bill leaves me to head off to a rehearsal
of Aliens in the Street, excited to be working with the full
complement of singers and instrumentalists from the first, something not
common in larger productions/houses, and also to be reuniting with
performers and musicians with whom he’s worked before. Bill draws my
attention to something that writer Mark Ravenhill – whose libretto Intolerance was set by composer Conor Mitchel and performed at the
2010 Festival (the first opera about IBS?) – said about TÍte ‡ TÍte: it’s the only place where, if you have an idea for an
opera, you can simply get on with it straight away.

Claire Seymour

TÍte ‡ TÍte

runs from 24th July to 10th August.

product_title=TÍte ‡ TÍte Opera Festival 2019
product_by=A interview by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Bill Bankes-Jones