One of the most important functions of the Tête à Tête Opera Festival is to provide a home for new work: not only entertaining it, but inviting and creating it. Both these commissions by Tête à Tête came from writing teams who collaborated on Pop Up Operas at the Festival in 2014: and very interesting teams they are, with two well-established novelists working alongside two young composers. Joanne Harris MBE, author of Chocolat and other novels, was paired with exciting young Highland composer Lucie Treacher (now 20 and studying ethnomusicology at SOAS) to create Moonlight; Stella Duffy worked with Israeli-born, London-based composer Na’ama Zisser, whose horror opera Black Sand was an eerie hit at Tête à Tête in 2013, to make The Last Seed. Directed with witty skill by Bill Bankes-Jones, Tête à Tête’s Artistic Founder and Director, these two imaginative and appealing short operas made for an enchanting hour at Kings Place.

Joan Rodgers (The Moon Queen) © Claire Shovelton
Joan Rodgers (The Moon Queen)
© Claire Shovelton

Moonlight took us underwater, with the CHROMA Ensemble, sitting either side of the stage, wearing helium-filled balloons in the shape of sea creatures attached to their heads by long pieces of metallic ribbon; gently nodding and waving in the air, the balloons’ movements suggested sea currents. More balloons were placed along the front row of the audience: we were all in the sea together. Treacher has grown in musical assurance since last year, creating a taut, absorbing piece with engaging melodic structures, gorgeous sparkling sounds, and plenty of depth. Reducing her scale slightly (Moonlight has a much smaller cast, and is significantly shorter than last year’s The Fisherman’s Brides) seems to have allowed Treacher to create a more focused sound, and the result was a successful, joyous adventure into a fully-realised magical world.

Medusa the Moon Queen is a jellyfish, played by none other than Joan Rodgers: a magnetic stage presence, a consummate performer, and someone whom it is a privilege to see in such an intimate setting. Rodgers’ stunning costume, a huge transparent crinoline skirt with a suspended fringed edge over frilled pantaloons, really does look and move like a jellyfish, while her all-white stage makeup, and a headdress made of soft and coiling translucent tubes, recalls the statuesque coiffure of a Georgian duchess. The opera sees Rodgers sweeping and twirling around the stage as she flirts coquettishly with the Moon, a large white globe suspended above the audience, with whom she has fallen in love to the chagrin of her faithful Starfish (Adam Sullivan), who not only loves her, but realises her tragic passion for the moon can never be fulfilled. That’s pretty much the extent of the plot: it’s more scenario than story. However, Joan Rodgers sings fabulously, while Joanne Harris’ libretto has some fine moments: “I’ll rise no more to dance upon the surface, but languid in the inky depths I’ll stay,” concludes the lovelorn Queen as she is persuaded to relinquish her silly passion.

Rodgers’ delicate waltzing contrasts with superb tumbling from Sullivan as the ungainly Starfish, observing the buffeting movements of real starfish underwater: floppily wobbling up or down steps to the stage, moving with a stiff-legged, rolling gait, or sliding desperately onto the floor. Instantly adorable in his ignored love, Sullivan’s tenor has a purity and quality which makes even his most ordinary lines sound special. Moonlight charmed from start to end.

Amar Muchhala, Craig Jackson, Meili Li, Tristan Landymore and Richard Bryan © Claire Shovelton
Amar Muchhala, Craig Jackson, Meili Li, Tristan Landymore and Richard Bryan
© Claire Shovelton

The Last Seed finds Narcissus (a husky-voiced Tristan Landymore, slightly hesitant on some notes but reminiscent of Jeff Buckley as his voice becomes established) on his way down to the kingdom of Hades (a sweet-voiced Amar Muchhala). Tim Meacock’s design suspends a real pomegranate in mid-air on stage, which Narcissus catches, tears apart and eats to beautiful, unsettling music which incorporates sampled sounds as well as live orchestration from CHROMA. Soon the Water (countertenor Richard Bryan) and two Ferrymen (a very impressive Meili Li and Craig Jackson) surround Narcissus, feeding him the remaining seeds in a scene which becomes disturbingly erotic, building towards a climax heavy with threat, while Duffy’s libretto mutters vaguely about life and love. Pomegranates are a dangerous thing to eat in the Underworld: Persephone was forced to stay there after eating six seeds, but here the seeds seem to represent the joys and pleasures of life, which Narcissus gobbles hungrily and sensuously. More aggressively contemporary in feel than Moonlight, with overtones of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in its repeated cries of “Time, gentlemen, please!”, The Last Seed sustains an intriguing, uncomfortable mood without particularly asking (or answering) any profound questions, particularly as many of Narcissus’ words don’t come across clearly. Still, it successfully creates an absorbing, disturbing image which might happily develop into a larger, stronger work. 

****1