Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival starts as it means to go on: at the forefront of the contemporary UK opera scene, pushing genre boundaries, achieving strong and sometimes surprising effects. In one evening, I saw Streetwise Opera’s warm and inspiring People Watch, Shirley J. Thompson’s striking Sacred Mountain, and Tim Benjamin’s duo of dramatic solos, Life Stories.

<i>People Watch</i> © Claire Shovelton
People Watch
© Claire Shovelton

People Watch, the third and final Little Opera from pioneering charity Streetwise Opera, dramatises the experience of watching TV: our various sofa-squirming reactions can be highly entertaining, as anyone who has ever watched Gogglebox will know. A large cast, many of whom have experienced homelessness, are grouped all over the stage on a selection of domestic furniture (generously provided by Emmaus). Initial mutterings evolve into the opening laughing chorus, engaging and faintly unsettling, sung with warm resonance, some exceptional voices shining within the whole; Susannah Austin, the only professional singer on stage, is also the least interesting. The cast’s inspiring sense of purpose glows in their committed, impressive performance. Bill Bankes-Jones’ words capture the everyday (including a very funny repeating commercial break) while touching on the regretful: “The primary purpose of television is not to entertain us, but to sell to us.” Those considering changes to the BBC’s Royal Charter, take note. The Ligeti Quartet, dressed as black cats complete with whiskers and tails, makes the most of Stef Conner’s music, combining Celtic harmonies with shivering or spiky string effects, resolving regularly into comfortable warmth. Timothy Burke conducts with clear-eyed verve, bearing a silver square on his black T-shirt: as he bows, we realise he has been the TV all along.

Abigail Kelly (Queen Nanny of the Maroons) with Tania Dimbelolo and Monique Jonas © Claire Shovelton
Abigail Kelly (Queen Nanny of the Maroons) with Tania Dimbelolo and Monique Jonas
© Claire Shovelton

Sacred Mountain tells the story of Queen Nanny of the Maroons, known as the Jamaican Boudicca for her brilliant guerrilla tactics resisting the British in the First Maroon War (1720-1739). Queen Nanny’s history is ripe with drama: she receives advice from her tribal ancestors in dreams, is betrayed by someone from her own village, yet still manages to triumph over the British; but despite seeing Sacred Mountain, I’m still not sure how. Abigail Kelly gives a superlative performance as Queen Nanny, finely sung and acted, making a memorable silhouette with her traditional turban and huge bloodstained cutlass, supported by three wonderful dancers (Kym Alexander, Tania Dimbelolo and Monique Jonas) who add presence and drama, as well as beauty of articulated movement, to proceedings. Sadly, even Kelly’s magnificent efforts cannot save this piece. The unfortunately linear method of plot delivery, spoken at intervals by an Orator (Cleveland Watkiss), undoes all work to build atmosphere: as drama dissipates, the piece reduces to a series of soliloquies, feeling increasingly long. I found it progressively harder to stay engaged, or understand the story: divorcing the singing from the action damages its sense as an opera. Shirley J. Thompson’s music, largely electronic with live percussion and trumpet, is just too loud: penetrating and repetitive, it too distracted us from, rather than conveyed, the plot.

James Fisher (Ezdeyev) © 2015 Radius
James Fisher (Ezdeyev)
© 2015 Radius
Tim Benjamin, by contrast, gives a masterclass in how to create a one-handed opera twice over in his Life Stories. Rest in Peace, inspired by a short story from Chekhov (Life in Questions and Exclamations, 1882), is sung gloriously by James Fisher as the tramp Ezdeyev, sleeping rough in a future Moscow: a ragged poster on a peeling wall proclaims in Cyrillic that we are in Putin’s Russia. Emerging dramatically from a filthy sleeping bag on stage, Ezdeyev picks through the shopping trolley holding his tattered belongings, each one sparking a memory: what we hear are the vivid flickers of his decaying, addled mind, fascinating both for their intensity and their randomness. If Harold Pinter had ever written an opera, this would surely be it. Fisher’s fabulously expressive face, alternatively sad, wild-eyed and dreamy, and brave commitment to his character (Benjamin’s direction includes Ezdeyev pleasuring himself furtively behind a dirty magazine: mercifully, it’s brief) make this piece truly come alive, while his rich and satisfying voice makes the most of Benjamin’s often melodic, sometimes surprising writing. Mournful one minute, dancing or drunken the next, impassioned, jagged: Benjamin’s score develops and intrigues constantly.

We move to the 18th century for Silent Jack, a story adapted from that of Lady Katherine Ferrers, heroine of one of my favourite Margaret Lockwood films, 1945’s The Wicked Lady. Benjamin’s response is Amy Beddoes: abandoned by a faithless husband, she becomes a highwayman to support herself, appealing in her tragic love while unnervingly practical in her quest for survival. Silent Jack’s poetic libretto has a nicely period air: “So now I eat the bread of sorrow; I am brought low, and my deservings are upon me,” Amy reflects in her hideout, where she has dragged herself with a mortal wound. Benjamin’s distinct and pleasing soundworld for Silent Jack conjures historical drama without hamming it up. Taylor Wilson’s superb acting and sumptuous mezzo enthralled me from start to finish in the strongest show of the night: with more than a slight air of Fiona Shaw, Wilson is definitely one to watch.