Opera is an art form experiencing a huge paradigm shift. Whilst the glamour and pomp of leading institutions like the Royal Opera House remain a bastion of the industry, contemporary takes have emerged for a new audience. With an emphasis on originality, are these modern directors renegades or pioneers? Tête à Tête artistic director Bill Bankes-Jones sat down with the Cultural Aficionado, and discussed his view of opera and how it forms part of an industry in transition.
Could you describe your job?
Good grief! I don’t really have a job as such. I am a self-employed freelance director and occasional translator/writer. I’m also Artistic Director of Tête à Tête. I’m happiest in a rehearsal room or theatre getting a show on. Happiest when it’s going well, which nowadays it usually is. I’d never be happy though if there wasn’t a tinge of danger. I’m not making shows as often as I’d like, and spend a lot of time advising people on their own new projects, generally when considering them for of Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival. And through Tête à Tête and as Chair of the UK’s network of opera companies, the Opera and Music Theatre Forum, I spend a fair bit of time on sector-wide initiatives. There is, rightly, a huge amount of discussion about inclusion at the moment, which is generally very backward in the opera sector.
What drew you to opera, to begin with?
I really didn’t get opera, I thought it wasn’t for me. I’m very grateful to my uncle for taking me to original productions of Gilbert & Sullivan as a kid, but I really didn’t get it. I remember going to a semi-pro production of Boheme and absolutely hating it. I was very musical at school, playing piano to a pretty high standard. Then music was weak at university (St Andrews) and I’d also always loved theatre, so my attention went there for a few years. Then I was given tickets to David Pountney’s Makropooulos Caseat ENO and totally blown away. I adored it, it was brilliant. Then opera found me really, it was a key device in a complicated story of me moving theatres under the ITV Regional Theatre Young Director’s Scheme. Then David Pountney himself got me into ENO, where I was very happy to assist him on his own productions for my first few years. As a theatre director I was always in pursuit of really committed dedicated fully engaged performances. Opera, being so challenging, is almost always this. The singer is doing so many things at once they can’t really phone it in, they will always be sweating. It’s getting all the other things to stack up that is the challenge here.
What’s the biggest misconception about the world of opera?
That’s very hard to answer, as I’m on the inside now. I guess a huge misconception is that opera is intellectual. That is not the challenge. It’s an acquired idiom, you need to get used to it to understand it. Opera though is about emotion, not ideas. It’s purely vulgar. Theatre is the arena for ideas, opera is where to feel.
What are the most challenging parts of putting an opera production in place?
The size and scale, I guess, there’s a lot to get to happen at once. I joked with a fellow director/producer recently about the new rail timetables and the chaos they caused. Being well used to getting a couple of thousand people together to combine in an fantastically intricate few hours, and used to large companies doing so continually, we felt that timetabling for railway trains ought to be a piece of cake. Somehow this also applies to opera on the smallest scale. Even with a handful of people, it’s still more intricate than most plays. I guess it’s the convergence of very different disciplines. The music is seldom valued in the legitimate theatre (I got into trouble for using that term recently, I hope everyone understands!) in the same way as for opera, and I think the tension between this and the (overemphasised but undervalued) theatre element in opera is what ultimately makes this tension.
Could you tell our readers what they should look for when considering attending an opera for the first time?
The trick is to try not to look for anything. It does help to try and do some work in advance, listen to music and understand the story if it’s a known piece. It’s great when a production is clear and you can experience it unfurling at the time, but as I say, it’s an idiom one must acquire by getting used to it, so you’d most likely help yourself with a bit of homework.
What do you think the future of opera looks like?
Opera is hurtling in two opposite directions the grand and exclusive and the very democratized. The country house phenomenon has taken the sector by storm at the same time as I seem to be at the forefront of a takeover bid by artists who want to make brave enterprising committed sincere work for all. This is torn in further directions by the live cinema relays, which are both fuelling and draiing our main stages, and the great and marvelous explosion of participatory/education work. I think the future is very bright. One thing new comers find very hard to understand will always steer the future of opera: it invariably costs more to make than you can earn at the box office. So it will always depend on subsidy from somewhere, whether it’s government or patronage. I’m glad we’re surviving on a cocktail of both, though fear the extent to which the subsidy nowadays is coming from the artists. Just like theatre, this is having a detrimental defect on the demographic.