Theatre and New Music

Published by: New Music Scotland
About: Bill Banks-Jones


From pretty much the beginning, one of the most substantial strands in all my work with Tête à Tête has been the introduction composers and makers of new music and opera to the theatre.

After spending much of my geeky teens making and absorbing lots of arcane contemporary music, I was sucked into the theatre and spend my first few years after university [Philosophy at St Andrews] making shows and leading workshops all over Scotland while running the Scottish National Association of Youth Theatre. After being drawn down south by the National Theatre and then ITV Regional Theatre Young Directors’ Scheme, I was headhunted by English National Opera towards the end of its glory Powerhouse days in the early nineties as a staff director. I guess many strands drew together for me when I was assigned as staff director to most of the annual new commissions that were premiered during my time there.

And I guess it was what I witnessed then that drove Tête à Tête’s first forays into new opera. Pretty much the only new operas being made then (in the early 90s) were these colossal commissions made by ENO. Pieces often 15 years in the making, composers were chosen only for their credentials in the concert hall, symphonic and proms triumphs, intellectual prowess and irrespective of their level of experience in the theatre.

This caused some absolutely dumbfounding situations, where these great auteurs were making what to me, with my professional training and experience in theatre, were clod-hopping mistakes.

I remember vividly a show-down I had with David Pountney when he was directing a prime example of this. The very lovely eminent composer/librettist (always a mistake to combine those jobs) had created a situation where Richard Van Allan, a great friend and wonderfully recalcitrant artist, was required to sing:

“…long ago he told my grandmother once that time was just an impression of change in the changeless, of time in the timeless…”

Despite my lowly status, with my long background in theatre and new writing, I knew full well that this was absolute garbage and that there was no way we should be forcing Richard into a situation where he had to perform this in front of thousands, and so I insisted that DP went to the said eminent auteur and told him this line was to be cut. Which did indeed happen.

But anyway, with my probably disproportionate sense of justice, I felt very strongly that this and so many other terrible wrongs could be easily corrected if these great composers had at least some experience in, if not training in, the art of theatre before they started making opera.

And that’s it really. Very early on, after making a joyously triumphant small-scale Fledermaus, I steered Tête à Tête towards making new works which drew operatic music-makers into theatrical environments at an early stage, and/or in places where risk could be embraced, stumbles excused and genuine gambles could pay off. This grew from the commissions of the first decade to the hosting of the festival I now run alongside this producing, where dozens of other artists and companies come together to pursue the same dreams.

Taking stock, it’s hard to believe quite how successful the enterprise has been. When once short and small-scale new operas didn’t exist, now they are commonplace. We are just finding out, not only in the UK but all over the world.

And not only that, but while “traditional” opera, ie endless regurtitations of a small and antique repertoire is in a state of panic about its audience being on the brink of death, all over the world young and funky people are flocking to make and enjoy young and funky new opera. It’s AMAZING.

This is the story I would like to trace in further detail in my In Cahoots! Session on Saturday, also allowing the lot of us to share our own stories and experiences, so we can together arrive at a deeper understanding both of what is going on in new opera, and what we can go on to do.

Bill Bankes-Jones 22nd October 2015

Part of the In Cahoots New Music Scotland Conference:

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