Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020, in London and Online

What is an opera? Take your preconceptions and throw them in the recycling bin. Founded in 1997, the annual Tête à Tête opera festival is a wonderful platform for small production companies, most of which are new or emerging, to present their latest work to a London audience. And they have always stretched the word ‘opera’ to breaking point and beyond. It’s a work, isn’t it? Refreshingly free of boundaries and barriers, the festival defies classification and welcomes works in development. As they write, ‘Our world is limited only by the boundaries of our imagination.’

The organisation already has a very strong online presence including an extensive archive of previous work, and necessarily 2020 has led them to be even more imaginative in the delivery of their programme. COVID-19 prompted them to publish a Manifesto reinforcing their commitment to the festival’s principles of inclusion and connectivity. Live (socially distanced and Covid-secure) events with small performing forces, hosted by the Cockpit Theatre in north London, were this season presented alongside streamed and recorded online content. In his introduction to the Cockpit shows, Tête à Tête’s artistic director, Bill Bankes-Jones, stressed that they did everything possible to launch live theatre performance in a way that was safe for live audiences and performers alike. Every piece was reworked to take account of current performance restrictions.

I often found myself drawn to a title or a concept, not least Reptilian Productions’ The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow Act 1 by writer/composer Darren Berry, in which ‘The Marquis de Sade has lost his libido and must find it or lose his head to the chopping block of Marie Antoinette.’ Three live performers grabbed costumes and wigs from clothes rails against a backdrop of filmed and animated sequences with which the live singers occasionally dialogued. Berry’s work came over as synthesised Cimarosa with added f-words meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show. A toy piano accompanied recitatives, and the show ended with a technicolour trippy journey in search of the mysterious crocodile (who we never meet). Caroline Kennedy (previously seen in i the opera) and Phil Wilcox were energetic, versatile comic performers.

Tête à Tête presents The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow--Photo by Clare Shovelton

Tête à Tête presents The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow–Photo by Clare Shovelton

Several works coupled a solo singer with a solo instrumentalist. The half-hour long Persephone’s Dream, a collaborative work by Fat Lady Opera, was ably performed by (talking and singing) cellist Clare O’Connell and singer Anna Braithwaite. It sounded particularly topical, a ‘digital/live hybrid opera that tells a story of withdrawal from the world,’ and indeed some of the text was inspired by UK Government Covid slogans. The filmed element was a surreal Zoom meeting, individuals in their boxes performing actions against wheat field backdrop images.

All the Tête à Tête productions I saw had strong concepts and committed performers, and the standout micro-operas were also very strong musically. The most impressive works were by the twentysomething Charlotte Marlow and the eightysomething Edwin Roxburgh. Roxburgh’s Her War, to a libretto by Jonathan Ruffle based on archive testimony, explores the female experience of PTSD in women returning from World War I. This short performance was followed by a Q&A with members of the creative team including Denise Poynter, an expert on the historical experience of women’s service. Soprano April Fredrick totally inhabited the character of Nurse Joan Grace, denied a pension despite horrendous war-induced trauma, her vocal line wound around by the fearless trumpeter Simon Desbruslais, as if the trumpet enabled us to see inside the character’s troubled head. Many composers associated with Tête à Tête will know Roxburgh as a supportive and inspiring teacher: it was lovely to see his dramatic music getting a deserved place in the spotlight.

Tête à Tête presents Her War--Photo by Clare Shovelton

Tête à Tête presents Her War–Photo by Clare Shovelton

I saw Folk Tales online, a Medusa Collective project ‘re-examining myths and legends from the perspective of women and nonbinary characters,’ with music by Charlotte Marlow and words by Caroline Hardaker based on traditional sources, performed by the splendid soprano Helene Mathiesen and violinist Cleo Annandale. Unlike some other events in the season, this show was a unified, finished work that was an intense and well-paced musical/dramatic experience, comparable to Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments for the same formation. This is something I want to hear again.

The Voice Party’s BIRD was a solo vehicle for the established contemporary and experimental music specialist, singer Loré Lixenberg. We entered to recorded birdsong, transporting us from a black box basement theatre in a further education college to an imagined outdoors. Lixenberg was initially seated at a table in front of a film backdrop, and the show morphed from a mock documentary with hushed narration to a juxtaposition of close-up filmed birds and Lixenberg transformed into an elaborately vocalising birdhuman. Drawing attention to the myriad similarities between birds and humans and interspersing these facts with filmed birds, cartoon clips and a nerdy man cavorting in a forest, this completely unclassifiable piece was quintessentially Tête à Tête.

Tête à Tête presents Folk Tales--Photo by Clare Shovelton

Tête à Tête presents Folk Tales–Photo by Clare Shovelton

Throughout the festival ran a charming project, The Minutes of the Hildegard von Bingen Society for Gardening Companions, a collaborative text/image-led work coordinated by the conductor Naomi Woo (based in Winnipeg, Canada) and the Cambridge-based academic and poet Sophie Seita. Hildegard was the original polymath–a composer, diplomat, herbalist and much more–and the Society solicited ideas for home-based activities. In practice many were led by the ‘gardening’ suggestion, including the inspiring ‘Make two root cuttings of a plant in your home. Give one to a friend. Leave one on a stranger’s door.’ Woo and Seita are also behind possibly the most striking of all titles in this year’s programme, Beethoven was a Lesbian, an audio play inspired by a series of postcards exchanged by Pauline Oliveros and Alison Knowles. Their playful reflections on queerness and regendering were wry and provocative: ‘What if the ears were sex organs?’ Tibetan bowl strikes and strokes punctuated the different episodes and the creators followed up the show with a set of postcards that were mailed to attenders. This project may not have been originally intended as a sonic art piece, but it was very effective in that format.

Tête à Tête presents BIRD--Photo by Clare Shovelton

Tête à Tête presents BIRD–Photo by Clare Shovelton

The online season ended on a high with a work-in-progress documentary, The Paradis Files, a collaboration led by the D/deaf and disabled theatre group Graeae with music by Errollyn Wallen, commissioned by The Stables for IF: Milton Keynes International Festival. Their project brings opera accessibility to a higher level, incorporating signing and audio description in an exciting dramatic subject, the blind composer and pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis. She was celebrated in her lifetime (Mozart dedicated his Piano Concerto K.456 to her, and Wallen doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the Mozart connection in musical terms) but forgotten until the late 20th century. The mezzo-soprano Bethan Langford, a young singer with a beautiful tone, expressed how refreshing it is to play Paradis as she is herself visually impaired. The Paradis Files is co-commissioned by the Milton Keynes International Festival and I for one can’t wait to see the complete show.

Never afraid to address big topics, Tête à Tête’s 2020 season epitomised a ‘show must go on’ spirit which is particularly welcome in such dangerous and worrying times. The incomplete state of many pieces, and occasional technical issues of the ‘why don’t you switch it off and switch it back on again’ type, meant the audience had an unusually intimate relationship with the artists, as if eavesdropping on the creative act. Let’s celebrate Tête à Tête for demonstrating courage and leadership in putting on this season in a city where live performance is only tentatively making a comeback: they play a unique role in the UK contemporary music scene and they thoroughly deserve our support.



I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is a program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. Editorial decisions are made at the sole discretion of the editor-in-chief. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or