Every summer, the Tête à Tête festival delivers fringe opera to curious audiences. Now, in its seventh year, the event will open with ‘Gala’ – a new puppet opera co-produced by The Puppet Centre Trust and Tête à Tête. It portrays the affair between Gala Dali (wife of surrealist artist Salvador) and the young actor Jeff Fenholt, who played Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway.
‘Gala’ was born out of ‘Puppetry in Opera’ – a series of illustrated talks held at the Barbican in November 2012, which discussed common ground between the two art forms, including the audience’s willingness to accept artifice and suspend their disbelief. According to the show’s designer and puppetry director Isobel Smith (Director of Grist to the Mill puppet company), the show will continue to build on Tête à Tête’s aim of challenging perceptions of opera as an art form.
“I feel very lucky to be working with Tête à Tête as a really out-there, cutting edge opera set-up. As a festival, its hitting a whole new audience for opera – to be part of that is wonderful,” says Smith. “Unfairly, opera may have a reputation for being high brow or expensive, whereas puppetry sometimes has the opposite problem, so I think it is interesting and challenging to put the two art forms together.”
The passionate affair between a young actor and his elderly, eccentric lover Gala Dali may make for unusual subject matter but Isobel Smith says this emotional theme has helped in the merging together of puppetry and opera. “There’s an epic feel to opera and for me, it’s an emotional thing – an opera could be based on a fairly mundane love story but the emotional content will be heightened to a fantastic degree. I think that gives a link between the two art forms as puppets can do the same thing – they can intensify emotional situations.”
Ergo Phizmiz, an opera aficionado and composer who created the music and lyrics for the show, agrees that puppetry and opera are natural bed fellows. “I think opera itself is quite detached from reality,” he says. “It’s a completely unnatural, artificial way of presenting a story so I think in some ways, puppet opera is a natural extension of opera because it’s another step forward into artifice and into a much more stylised way of presenting or telling a story.”
In a similar way that writing for radio means the creative team doesn’t always need to concern itself with creating plausible scenes, Mr Phizmiz said ‘Gala’ has allowed his imagination to run riot. “With puppetry, you don’t have to consider whether or not something is going to appear realistic or convincing – there’s a much wider gamut of storytelling and where the narrative can go with puppetry.”
Comparing the musical landscape of ‘Gala’ to “a slightly gone-off Baroque Disneyland” which is “quite lush and romantic but with a really sour topping,” Phizmiz says he was also inspired by the soundtrack to Salvador Dali’s film ‘Un Chien Andalou’ (1929), which was backed with Argentinean tangos. The show also features opera singers from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
Much of the allure of the ‘Gala’ production comes from the charm of the eponymous heroine who, according to Mr Phizmiz, is complex and unlikeable yet also alluring, powerful and sexual. So, how does one approach the challenge of designing and directing puppets based on such a rich character?
At the time of writing, the puppets are still being developed but according to Isobel Smith, they will focus entirely on Gala. “At the moment, the Jesus Christ Superstar/Jeff Fenholt character is to be played by an opera singer in costume, singing and performing as that character, leaving all of the puppetry to be based on or around Gala herself.”
“There may not be a puppet with a face or a mouth – at the moment I’m considering using many different types of fabric and materials to animate Gala,” she says. “A lot of it will be quite abstract, with objects used as well as puppets. We are looking at using puppets on a big scale too. For example, we may use a pair of great big eyes and a large mouth, as a nod to Salvador Dali’s sofa in the shape of May West’s lips. The mouth may be animated and would represent Gala’s mouth – with the puppetry I am trying to keep the focus on Gala, her dreams and her mad reality.”
Describing his role as Director of ‘Gala’ and artistic director of Tête à Tête, Bill Bankes-Jones says one of opera’s great strengths is its ability to pull together many different disciplines, with puppetry being one of the colours in opera’s vibrant “paint box”. He adds that the festival is a great antidote to the perception that opera is an elitist art.
“What I find a little depressing is that, particularly in the last 10 years, opera has started marketing itself on its exclusivity and poshness, and I feel that’s a pity because there is something much more to be treasured which is to do with how sensual opera is and how it can move you like nothing else. The whole thrust of Tête à Tête and the work I have done for years is about confronting this pre-judgement head on.”
“With Tête a Tête, you don’t need to wait your whole life to create a piece of opera and the festival offers a platform for fringe performance,” says Bankes-Jones. “When I look at the growth of fringe opera around the world, it feels gratifying – we started doing it in a vacuum but now this is commonplace.”
Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival is the only festival of entirely new opera in the world, where hundreds of creators at all levels of the industry come together.
“I think opera itself is quite detached from reality. It’s a completely unnatural, artificial way of presenting a story... puppet opera is a natural extension of opera because it’s another step forward into artifice and into a much more stylised way of presenting or telling a story" – Ergo Phizmiz
'Gala' plays on the 1 and 2 August at Riverside Studios. Tickets are £7.50.