Saturday, 9 August 2014

Tete a Tete Opera Festival 2014


New year, new shoes as the unwritten novel has it. The Tete a Tete Opera Festival of 2014 has moved across town to King's Cross to the theatres in one end of the new Central Saint Martin's building and then on to King's Place, just the other side of the road. King's Place is a known quantity now, an asymmetric, stratified atrium that's well-suited for the informal communality spilling out after the set-piece shows. As it turned out, CMS is an excellent composite venue too: a pair (did I miss a third?!) of very different but superb, state of the art theatres, a wide open foyer (without the Riverside Studio's bottleneck) and a space outside sheltered under an overhang. All this is tucked around the back of the converted Granary Complex which affords some relative quiet for al fresco performing. Finally - and not to be sniffed at - the excellent bar serves drinks at studenty prices. The ferocious air conditioning in the Platform Theatre aside, it can be seen as an upgrade.

This year, for the first time, I was performing (Sarah Dacey's Stupid Cupid, given to an increasingly packed foyer over two afternoons). The same weekend I went to see Errolyn Wallen's Anon, a piece workshopped in WNO and performed here by a fine all female cast and three-piece band. The piece is a series of episodes, reflecting the process in which the material was worked up talking to young women in Birmingham schools. A recurring, reflective chorus - 'What would you do?' - is a super bit of writing and, for me, one of the high points of the Festival. Later we went over to the Studio Theatre to hear Possession!, whose principal attraction was in a capable string trio, two of whom played viols.

The next weekend, I arrived early to join a panel discussion on marketing. Such events inevitably cast a wide net. One goes in with a magpie mentality, trying to find information and ideas that will work well in your own case. There were not only good suggestions but also a room full of solidarity for trying to sell an artform - let alone individual shows - that somewhat embattled at the moment. Nonetheless, one still had to work to sift the relevance from a panel who run institutions (the OAE, King's Place and ETO) who have departments dedicated to doing what (usually) a single individual is trying to juggle when trying to produce work on the scale seen during this Festival. For example, it was suggested that one bring together an audience focus group, though it transpires that the cost of such research can be equivalent to mounting an entire Festival Opera production.

Either way, it got us all thinking about expectations and assumptions and talking to one another on the way to the weekend's opera. I saw Errolyn Wallen's Cakehead, a fringe amuse-bouche all but upstaged by a brilliant inflating costume that turned a soloist into a slice of Battenberg, and then Opera Kitsune's Spirit Harbour, a Noh-inspired fable performed with great competence and clear direction in the Platform Theatre.

From here we went on to see Tonseisha, Saltpeter's ongoing development on the writing and figure of beat poet Richard Brautigan. I had been involved in an early stage of workshopping the piece
18 months ago and wanted to see what had taken hold or moved on. The piece remains a portmanteau of strongly drawn disciplines. The slippery (beat?) abstraction of the simple romance narrative was seriously impressive. The musicians successfully found the roses in the midst of Kim Ashton's bramblebush score and the whole company embraced Gary Merry's direction, fizzing from one idea to the next with absolute conviction. Laughter tumbles into bewilderment into very real sentiment, and back again, briskly. The subcutaneous, double-bluff passion of the poem we all found on our seats
It's so nice
to wake up in the morning
all alone
and not have to tell someone
you love them
when you don't love them
any more.
was properly reflected in the performance.

The third weekend of the Festival featured a portmanteau of short pieces. Size Zero Opera's feminist diptych Women Box featured a piece coached by the former boxer Cathy Brown in order to invest the production with some authenticity. Brown spoke to us prior to the performance. The talk lasted seven minutes and took no questions. It was short and, er, punchy and - likely by accident - representative of the theatre to come.

The operatic pair constituting Women Box, Training is the Opposite and Women Conduct were bookended with Murizio Kagel's first and second string quartets, which worked as a pair of scenes with prologue and epilogue. Kagel's 'Theatre of the absurd' aesthetic of getting the performers to act out intentions and impulses moved consistently between the quartets and Women Conduct, in which a woman conductor wrestles with the different arguments and insecurities that continue to pothole the road to podium equality.

Most interesting though was the boxing-based work. Laura Bowler's boxer goes through the motions of a training session. There is very little singing but all the concerted effort that is familiar to a singer. It is as if one is watching the mechanism of a coloratura cabaletta on the outside; the singing equivalent of examining the Lloyd's Building. All the outwardness of conventional performance was turned in, complete with incoherently muttered recitative. The production seemed a little over-egged in the space (worthily aiming for intensity) but all the gestures and ideas shared the same focus. Above all I found no pressing feminist message being delivered despite the title, the sex of the performer and the pre-performance talk - the brevity and tangentiality of which was consistent with the piece itself. I see this theatrical unity as a strength, even if it's by default.

When I came out I also saw part of Caroline Wilkins' adaptation Victory over the Sun, which immediately struck me as carefully prepared and well-observed (for all its anarchy!) - and made me want to go and see the current Malevich exhibition (Malevich designed the 1913 original) at Tate Modern all the more!

The next day I saw Caitlin Rowley's (Hansel and) Gretel vignette Breadcrumbs, a foyer piece which fought a losing - if lyrical - battle with the reverberent atrium and audiences of two previous shows converging on the bar. Then, finally, to Edward Lambert's The Catfish Conundrum, a Reichian-vernacular recounting of an incident at the Hayward Gallery in 1971 where artists and politicians fought a free speech battle over a catfish condemned for art's sake. The music was sure, if slippery. The performances were all the more impressive for managing it. We all laughed a fair bit. Cheap projected images and amplified strings were more of a hindrance than a help.

It's been another super Festival with plenty to talk about. Discussing the might-have-beens is just as important as celebrating the outright successes in this arena and there has been a healthy mix of both.