Directing puppet opera - an interview with Bill Bankes-Jones

Bill Bankes-Jones, artistic director of opera company Tête à Tête, talks about his role as director of ‘Gala’ – the forthcoming puppet opera which focuses on the affair between Gala Dali (wife of surrealist artist Salvador) and Jeff Fenholt – a young actor, then playing Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway.

Why do puppetry and opera fit so well together?

In a way it’s self evident. Opera by definition is very unrealistic and stylised so whatever is going on, you’re never going to walk into an opera performance and see it as believable behaviour, whereas you could look into a rehearsal room and see an argument and wonder if the actors are performing or really arguing.

Puppetry is also very heightened and it’s useful because it’s a way of doing really extraordinary things – characters can die several times, they can explode or whizz through the air without having any apparent means of propulsion – there’s a whole spectrum of weird or stylised things puppets can do that are not impossible but not easy to do with actors in a theatrical setting.

There’s also a natural element to puppetry and a kind of accessibility. I believe that’s a selling point. As children, we’ve all done it ourselves, we pick up objects and start playing with them – it’s the most natural thing for a kid to do, to turn a tablecloth into a ghost. But then it’s also natural to burst into song and explore stories in that way. That’s why we call them plays, because it’s playing and imitating real life.

‘Gala’ is specifically a puppet opera. Did this make you approach the project differently to other productions?

When I was asked to be in the Puppetry in Opera conference last year, I thought it was a little odd because I didn’t think I had done anything like that before. But in fact, on reflection, I realised I had actually directed many productions that involved puppetry. However, as this project has been initiated by The Puppet Centre, I am treating it differently, as the invitation is to explore the extent to which puppetry and opera can fuse and be combined.

I believe one of the fun things about opera is that it pulls together so many disciplines – sometimes it’s dominated by puppetry, other times by ballet or dance, sometimes it’s all about projection – the only given is that it’s storytelling through music and words and puppetry is one of the colours in the paint box.

What initially appealed to you about the ‘Gala’ project?

It’s that together we have built it up collaboratively. The invitation came from The Puppet Centre Trust and I had been talking to Ergo Phizmiz (the composer) for a long time about creating this particular piece. Given that his work is very influenced by collage and involves the super imposing of music, words, people, images, projection and puppetry, he seemed to be a very natural choice and it all came together.

Isobel Smith (designer and puppetry director) is very much part of the core team and is helping to drive this project. Isobel is interesting because she came to puppetry from another form, starting as a visual artist and then moving into her natural creative outlet. She is a good person to work with because she has a fresh approach, meaning we can create something really splendid.

Why do you believe the Tête à Tête opera festival is an important showcase?

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.

From a public perspective, the festival offers a place where opera isn’t grandiose and exclusive. It feels like it’s spearheading the great revolution of new opera. When I was working with English National Opera 20 years ago, I think there was a particular lull because there were very few new operas being done and they would probably cost about a million pounds a throw because it was only the Royal Opera and the English National Opera doing it. That meant the risk involved was very high and it meant people were scared and weren’t free to create.

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. 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.

What advice would you offer to other directors hoping to work with puppetry or opera?

To go in with an open mind and an open heart, to listen and learn. Don’t be scared, but it’s also important not to work with puppetry just for the sake of it. I think there have been some bad examples of that – the one I thought was such a shame was when the English National Opera used a puppet onstage to represent the little boy in ‘Madam Butterfly’ – it was a cop out and a misunderstanding of the clever writing of Giacomo Puccini, who knew that the appearance of this little child would move the audience to tears.

It doesn’t surprise me that it was a film director [Anthony Minghella] who did that onstage – the reason I love directing live things is that I don’t have full control, my job is to set other people up to conjure up the performance in front of the audience, whereas 80% of film is engineered in the editing process. Minghella may have seen the entrance of the child as a problem because perhaps he wasn’t used to unleashing out of control things in theatres, but the trick is to create parameters.

On the other hand, I would love to see a production of ‘Madam Butterfly’ composed entirely with puppets – it would make more sense in that world. Just don’t use puppetry when you don’t need to.


‘Gala’ is co-produced by Puppet Centre and Tête à Tête, in association with Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.


"Puppetry is very heightened and it’s useful because it’s a way of doing really extraordinary things – characters can die several times, they can explode or whizz through the air without having any apparent means of propulsion – there’s a whole spectrum of weird or stylised things puppets can do"

Additional Info

'Gala' plays on the 1 and 2 August at Riverside Studios. Tickets are £7.50.