Tête à Tête, The Opera Festival: How to successfully put on live performances during a pandemic

Ahead of its 2021 return, Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival has released a video and other assets with key tips on how to successfully put on live performances in the new age of pandemic.

The short film‘Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020 – Learning from Staging Indoor Performances to a Live Audience During a Pandemic’, draws on all the aspects that enabled Tête à Tête’s 2020 Festival to go ahead. It features top tips from a range of people involved in the Festival, from those in programming to performing to marketing, and looks at various topics. Full info below

The learnings follow Tête à Tête’s unforgettable experience of putting on its annual festival last year.  From July and September 2020, Tête à Tête safely co-hosted 19 live productions with The Cockpit, including a DCMS pilot for the return to indoor performance which, held in July 2020, was the first performance of opera in a theatre to a live audience since March 2020.  In total, the 2020 Festival saw 107 opera makers back working in the theatre for live audiences, with a total audience of 435 people watching the shows in person. 

Here are the lessons that Tête à Tête learnt: 

Lesson 1: Keep your planning flexible

‘You need to be very small, flexible, fast, lithe, and quick moving. Between getting the go ahead and doing it, we had three days to put on a Pilot Performance for Indoor Performances for the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in July. We did it, and boy was it worth it.’ 

Bill Bankes-Jones, Artistic Director of Tête à Tête 

Lesson 2: Prototype

‘It was fantastically useful for us to try once to stage a Covid compliant performance, go away, absorb the learning and then put all of the procedures in place to enable us to do another 18 different shows over two weeks in the same theatre.’ 

Bill Bankes-Jones, Artistic Director of Tête à Tête 

Lesson 3: Have a clear aim

‘We were very lost towards the beginning of the pandemic, so I just wrote a Manifesto saying what we really cared about – which was making live shows for live audiences. It gave us a marker in the sand to go for, and also, should we not be able to do what we wanted to do, it gave us a kind of style in which this would happen. So even if you look at the 13 other productions that we did last year which were purely online, you’ll see each of them has that flavour of live audience.’ 

Bill Bankes-Jones, Artistic Director of Tête à Tête 

(c) Claire Shovelton

Lesson 4: Develop a strong network

‘One of the big things about being part of the Tête à Tête opera festival collective was the ability to be heard in a space with like-minded individuals. It acted as a sounding board for issues as well as suggestions for resolutions by other artists.  Overall, it was a way of sharing the whole process of what we were trying to create, from the initial stages to live performance or digital performance or a total different iteration of the project.’ 

April Koyejo-Audiger, Creator of Bubbles the Zebrafish & The No .8 Bus

Lesson 5: Keep Communicating all the way and Lesson 6: Hold your production lightly

‘I think that the massive unexpected reward was the fact that we sort of became a much bigger creative team.  Normally, my creative team is relatively small – designer, composer, director etc.  But this was like being part of a much broader, much more open looking, outward facing group.  Each week we’d be coming with ideas, bits of mischief, bits of generosity, unlooked for sometimes but really helpful.  The other thing that really struck me was how lightly everyone was having to hold their productions.  Normally the closer you get to a production date the more tightly you’re holding on to your vision and the more sort of exact you are about what you are trying to achieve.  I came away from the whole experience which involved hooking up with this massive creative team a couple of times a week, responding to the emerging restrictions with glee rather than with desperation.’ 

Tania Holland Williams, Artistic Director of Fat Lady Opera 

Lesson 7: Carefully consider and rehearse the flow of people and Lesson 8: Work with your artists to keep Covid compliant

‘2020 was proof that artists have an appetite for creating live works regardless of circumstance and a reminder of our sector’s ability to rise to and overcome challenges using the creativity integral to the creative arts.  My role now, as always, is to empower artists to deliver their work safely, working with not against them.  Much of my time was spent distilling guidance, rules and emerging best practices into a comprehensive form that allowed our artists to clearly see what the parameters were in which they could create their work.  Tools such as our cut-and-play plans and regular zoom meetings were designed as a platform where artists could explore their ideas and feel confident that what they wanted to deliver could be delivered safely.’ 

David Salter, Technical Director of Tête à Tête

Top Tips for digitising your live show

1. Each online show = Big Event!
2. Adapt your show for an online environment
3. Be responsive with your online audience
4. Make your ticket prices affordable
5. Be honest with your audience

(c) Claire Shovelton

 ‘The real question for streamed shows is why should audiences come to this event here and now rather than just watching iPlayer, Netflix or indeed talking to their loved ones. We work with all of our artists to find the best way to make each online show an event in its own right.  Some adapted their work to make it thrive in an online environment.  Most participated in discussions and demonstrations and all of them really used their new dimension, which meant we could reach people and work with artists who could never make our live shows.  Anything that makes it a live experience that makes audiences want to be there in that moment really helps people want to be at your event and indeed tell their friends to catch up later if it’s really good.  We also worked with artists to set a ticket price that was accessible – just £1 plus an optional donation.  That kept things affordable for everyone whilst reminding our audiences that making our shows is work and you should support artists’ livelihoods if you at all can.  Prices set an expectation, so be honest with your audience – your work isn’t worth nothing.  Lots of people don’t know that making a digital show can be more expensive than making live work, because you’ve also got to pay your filming and streaming team in addition to your usual costs.  Remember, you are not just making a digital copy of that live show, you are making a digital experience that is live in its own right.’ 

Leo Doulton, Marketing Director of Tête à Tête

Lesson 9 Slow down in the theatre

‘Whilst it is important to acknowledge the different scales of operations and financial models, one thing Tête à Tête can do is share the learning from our own experience, and we are doing that by making this film.  We’re also putting lots of resources onto our website, and we’re sharing that with opera makers, agencies, funders.  We’ve built many resources, so do head over and have a look at those on the webpage. But really, on one level nothing has changed.  Collaboration in opera has always been key and continues to be so. Draw on the skills of those around you to make it the best it can be. But really, one thing has changed. You just need to slow things down.  We know that creativity doesn’t work to a time check list – different people create in different ways. But you need to build in a toolkit and a framework, for a calm safe environment, safe in every sense of the world, for people to work in.’ 

Anna Gregg, Administrative Director of Tête à Tête


‘Surround yourself with great artists and support staff, and work with great partners. We couldn’t have done it without The Cockpit who were amazing and put everything into opening up for us.  We couldn’t have done it without Arts Council, the support of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, or the amazing individuals who donated to us and supported us at the 11th  hour.  The other thing I would say, as a conclusion, is to have in your heart what you really want to do.  If you are very certain about that, then that will get you through everything. Good luck and hope you go on to make magic.’ 

Bill Bankes-Jones, Artistic Director of Tête à Tête