Imagine you are standing on a street in your town. What would it take for you to feel that you were in the presence of opera, that you had suddenly stepped into an opera house?
It was this question that Tania Holland Williams, founder of Fat Lady Opera, asked the people of Folkestone in 2019, as part of her company’s first commissioned project The Invisible Opera House.
Have a think about it. We’ll come back to it later.
Tania grew up and went to school in Folkestone. As a small child, she fell in love with music and the theatre. Her father was ‘a mad keen rock and roll addict’, and Tania was introduced to classical music by two inspirational people – her school music teacher and her classical guitar teacher.
‘I had one of the most eclectic teenage record collections,’ she laughs. ‘My first album was Morricone’s Fistful of Dollars. And while I still loved Abba and all the pop stuff, I also had Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.’
While she was still at school, Tania joined FHODS – the Folkestone and Hythe Operatic and Dramatic Society. She loved the sense of belonging that she felt with her new theatrical family. And when she left school, to her parents’ horror, she took a degree in Clowning and Performance at Middlesex University, singing in jazz clubs at night.
It was Tania’s singing teacher who first suggested that she should audition for the Royal College of Music Opera School. She went along and was offered a postgraduate place. Suddenly Tania was on track for a career in opera.
‘With my background in clowning, I found opera a bit puzzling when I first started working in it,’ Tania admits. ‘I discovered that opera likes to put up quite a lot of barriers. It’s got this weight of heritage of the right and wrong way of doing something. If you do a Mozart opera, you’ve got several hundred years of people who’ve done it before telling you how it should be done.’
Germany and the Grand Tour
After graduating from the Opera School, Tania was awarded a scholarship to study opera in Munich.
‘My dad, who is Austrian, was in the army, and we’d lived in Germany for a while when I was first born,’ Tania explains. ‘My Gran spoke Austrian dialect German, so I felt an affinity with the German language and I’d always wanted to go back there. Then when I was there, it just seemed like a really great place to do opera. There’s an opera house in every town and there’s an appetite for opera that there just isn’t in the UK.’
After she completed her course in Munich, Tania joined the company at the Opera House in Weisbaden. She felt at home immediately.
‘Like at FHODS, the opera company became like my family,’ she says. ‘It was just what I’d been looking for. They had some amazing guest directors. And I really felt I was learning my craft.’
After three years with the company, both Tania’s singing teacher and conductor, Jonathan Nott, whom she’d been working with, advised her to move on to broaden her experience.
‘They said it was time for me to get going, basically,’ Tania remembers. ‘So I did move on, but I don’t think I went in the direction that perhaps I should have done, or that they thought I was going to!’
While she was studying in Munich, Tania met Canadian artist Bonnie Bews and they had became good friends.
‘We’d had this idea of touring for years,’ Tania explains. ‘Bonnie paints beautiful Arthur Rackham-style pictures on glass, and I’d recorded an album of British songs by Vaughn Williams and Britten, so we decided to tour Canada and Europe together. We knew we’d never make any money from ticket sales, so we decided to sell Bonnie’s paintings, and agreed a cut.’
The tour lasted two-and-a half years. Tania returned to the UK afterwards, exhausted vocally and physically, and in need of a job.
‘When I came back to the UK, I landed with a bit of a bump,’ Tania says. ‘Because I’d been working since I left college, I assumed that I’d walk straight into something reasonably well-paid. But all my connections had moved on. And it took me several years to re-find a way back into opera.’
Eventually, Tania began touring with small-scale opera companies, earning extra money singing oratorios. But after the richness of her experience in Germany, she found the repertoire predictable and uninspiring. And although the oratorios paid well, it wasn’t the opera she craved.
‘I began asking myself what I was doing it all for,’ Tania says. ‘I felt like I’d taken risk after risk with my career, and then to find myself doing really conventional stuff – I wasn’t sure that was really me. I think if I’d stayed in Germany I would have continued singing because there, there was a sense that my practice was continuing to develop, whereas over here, I was just ticking boxes.’
Disillusioned, Tania took the difficult decision to retire from singing for a while and she started to look for a ‘normal 9-5 job’, where singing wasn’t a big part of her life.
Her first job was in Thurrock, managing the Creative Partnerships programme, which placed artists in schools to help develop young people’s creativity. She loved the job.
‘It was an amazing few years,’ Tania says. ‘Although I wasn’t performing, I was working every day with creative people – recruiting and training artists, engaging and prepared the schools, and then mentoring the projects as they rolled out.’
But in 2011, with a change of government, it became clear that funding for Creative Partnerships would end. Tania moved on again, this time to a part-time role raising funds to support the Royal Opera House’s move to High House Production Park in Thurrock. Although she was extremely successful, raising 5.2 million pounds in just 8 months, Tania’s heart just wasn’t in it.
‘I really hated the work,’ she confesses. It was very political. It was affecting my mental health. It was a million miles away from theatre-making and it was breaking my heart being that close to creativity but not being a creative. I remember thinking, I’ve got to change this.’
A sense of belonging
At about the time that she took up her post at The Royal Opera House, Tania set up a company called Curious Planet . The plan was to use Curious Planet to continue to work with some of the artists she had met at Creative Partnerships. Fortunately, as her work at the Royal Opera House came to an end, Creative Planet started to gain a little bit of traction.
Tania invited 12 artists to join her new initiative and, as part of a visioning exercise, asked them to consider what they might do, as artists, to maintain a sense of wonder in the world.
Two of the artists, Wendy Daws and Peter Cook proposed a project called The Importance of Elsewhere, inspired by a Philip Larkin poem of the same name. Their vision was to create an arts space that was welcoming and totally inclusive.
‘A big problem with funding is that it, unintentionally, creates silos,’ explains Tania. ‘For example Kent Association for the Blind where Wendy worked, is an association for people with vision impairment so their services, their clubs, their activities bring people with poor sight together. But there aren’t many places that are able to say, you can come if you’ve got sight loss, or if you have a learning disability, or if you’re elderly and a bit physically frail, and your access needs will be catered for. Generally, building relationships and making friends, is about sharing a positive interest, not because we share a common characteristic. So the conversation then became about, how can we create a space that is like that.’
To succeed, The Importance of Elsewhere needed access to a large empty space, with smaller breakout areas. It all seemed a bit of a pipe dream until, one day, Tania attended a meeting to discuss the Old Registry Office in Chatham, which had been bought for residential development. Because building work could not start for several months, someone at the meeting suggested that, perhaps, it could be let out to artists in the meantime. The space was exactly what Tania needed. She put a proposal together, got some funding, and The Importance of Elsewhere moved into the building.
‘It was only for a few months, but I would have loved it to have lasted longer, because it cemented where Curious Planet was going to work best,’ Tania says. ‘Artists from different disciplines came together and created spaces that encouraged creative exchange between communities from diverse backgrounds. Members of the public came as participants, or as audiences, or simply to look around a space that had special memories for them – perhaps they’d got married there or they’d registered a birth or a death there. It was such a refuge and I think, actually, I’m still looking for a place like that, where people feel they belong.’
‘One of my big beefs about the big opera houses and theatres now,’ she continues, ‘is that they are highly functioning commercial organisations, and although the quality of the work is stunning, they are not places where people belong anymore and I think audiences feel it, and that for me is hugely sad.’
Bringing music home
Curious Planet continued successfully until 2012. But by this point Tania was, again, beginning to feel a little removed from the creative process. Instead of performing and leading events, increasingly, she was writing contracts for other artists taking part in Curious Planet projects.
But new opportunities were just around the corner.
She received an invitation to sing from a friend in Scotland. He was working with a local theatre and wanting to begin to programme opera. He wondered if Tania might also be interested in directing.
Despite not having sung for some time and never having directed professionally before, Tania said yes. Soon she was directing regularly and touring productions around Scotland with Byre Opera.
Tania found that she loved directing and although many of the operas she was directing were from the standard repertory, she found that, as director, she could make a difference to the way an audience experienced the production.
‘I’ve always trusted that the audience will come with you no matter how strange or weird the work you’re presenting them with, if you’ve done the work and if the spirit within the work is right,’ she says. ‘I’ve never been frightened to look the audience in the eye. There is a sense that we are sharing this moment in time. There’s a contract that you enter into when you are performing, particularly in small spaces.’
Tania’s ultimate ambition was to produce new and exciting work and to engage new audiences who wouldn’t normally sign up for contemporary opera. However, she was keenly aware of the barriers that she would need to break down.
‘It’s really tough to do contemporary music and opera,’ she explains. ‘I think the problem with contemporary music as opposed to contemporary visual arts is the commitment required. If you’re looking at a piece of contemporary art and it doesn’t hold your interest, you can just move on. But with contemporary music, you have to buy a ticket. And you’re trapped – literally trapped if you are sat in a concert hall. And if you’re not offering people Mozart or Beethoven or a familiar composer. You’re basically saying, come and trust us.’
If new audiences weren’t going to come to see contemporary performances, Tania decided that the contemporary performances would have to come to them. She set up a project called Davey Jones’ Locker which took new music into people’s living rooms.
‘We went to over 60 living rooms in Kent,’ Tania says. ‘The idea was to find an adventurous home owner who liked music and ask them to pull together an audience of about ten people. Then two instrumentalists, or a singer and an instrumentalist would come and give them the most interesting, thought-provoking, wonderful evening possible.’
For the project, Tania commissioned very short pieces from living composers, each lasting just a few minutes. She then used various devices to provoke conversation about this new music.
‘We might say, this piece hasn’t got a title so we’d like you to think about what the title might be so that we can feed that back to the composer. Or we might use different instruments, or ask the composer to write three different endings, Tania explains. ‘They were all things that allowed us to say to an audience, this piece has been written specifically for tonight – so people knew they were getting something special, just for them.’
The legacy of the project took Tania by surprise.
‘It was a really, really rewarding project,’ she enthuses. ‘And quite wonderfully and unexpectedly for me, I ended up feeling really back immersed in a world of music again. So in 2018, I launched Fat Lady Opera, which has pretty much taken over my life. It’s been joyful!’
The invisible opera house
So back to the question that Tania posed at the beginning of this blog. What would it take to turn your town into an opera house?
Fat Lady Opera’s first major project, The Invisible Opera House set out to find the answer.
‘I wanted to show that Folkestone, where I grew up, could become an opera house, so I set up “opera enquiry hubs” to ask people what they thought were the essential ingredients of opera,’ Tania says. ‘There was a general consensus that you don’t need the massive building surrounding the opera, but there are some key ingredients, such as big stories and a certain style of singing.’
There were workshops – including an updated, community-led version of Carmen, set outside a vaping shop.
‘It was the first and only time I was a Carmen with a baby doll attached to me for the whole time,’ Tania laughs. ‘Even when I was murdered by Don Jose, I was still carrying my baby! It was brilliant, anarchic and exactly the way opera should go!’
Tania also directed a short musical theatre piece called Belongings, written by composer, Samuel Bordoli and lyricist, Bill Bankes-Jones. The piece, inspired by items of luggage carried by the KinderWagen children fleeing war in WW2 and the more prosaic commuter experience, was realised in Customs House in Folkestone Harbour, at the junction with the railway lines.
The project culminated in a community performance, NightWatchers which, through choruses and sea shanties, told the story of life and loss in a fishing community during a rescue in a storm, out at sea. The cast of 45 from schools, Age UK and local choirs, rehearsed in Folkestone Harbour, and performed there, in November, to an audience of over 400 people.
Tania is now working on the next stage of The Invisible Opera House, planned for 2022.
Dreaming through lockdown
For Tania, the involvement and engagement of the audience is as important a part of the production process as the performance itself. But more than that, she feels the presence of an audience is necessary to validate her as an artist.
”As a performing artist and particularly somebody who really revels in ensemble work, I wonder, am I still the artist person that I thought I was if I haven’t got an audience?’ Tania asks. ‘I don’t mean I need an adulatory audience, but I do need that immediacy of energy exchange. I love the moment when the audience’s eyes open slightly wider and they’re there, in a new place because the lighting’s changed. They’ve forgotten about what went on in their own lives earlier in the day because they’ve suddenly come into the space that you’re in.
‘Of course, there is a reward in believing that that I’ve created a good piece of work,’ she continues. ‘But the reason for doing that work is because you want it to reach people. You want it to communicate and without an audience, it’s an incomplete transaction.’
For the creative industries, the last 18 months have been littered with ‘incomplete transactions’ as COVID regulations limited audience involvement and companies sought new and innovative ways to continue their work.
‘At the time, we were just trying to find ways to maintain connections with people, while still thinking about opera and theatre,’ Tania remarks.
During lockdown, Fat Lady Opera produced Persephone’s Dream at the Cockpit Theatre, with Tania directing. It was a hybrid work, based on the legend of Persephone, featuring live operatic performance, and a 2-D virtual Chorus of Curious Eyes performing in a Zoom grid, which marked the boundary on stage between the living and the dead. At the time of the performance, the theatre was allowed an audience of only 40, so the opera was also filmed and made available online.
With obvious parallels to the lockdown that everyone was experiencing at the time, Persephone’s Dream moves through the different stages of sleep, exploring the purifying power of isolation, as well as its dangers.
‘In the first section, the doors are locked the windows closed, everything is secure, I’m in my house now thank you very much,’ Tania recounts. ‘Then there is an increase in drowsiness, and certainly for me during lockdown, everything seemed to go into a sort of muffled slow motion.
Next, the piece explores the REM dream state through a scene called “Resistance”.
‘It captures the strange hand based strictures that were cropping up, Tania explains. ‘Sing Happy Birthday twice when you wash your hands, clap the NHS, don’t touch your face.’
After that comes “purification”.
‘There is a stage in sleep called “sleep spindles” where the brain is cleaning itself up, Tania says. ‘For me, that was ritual, the idea of acceptance, trying to make a new normal part of our understood world.
‘The final scene is “threshold”, so waking up again and realising that the world has changed and it has become greener. And the audience is left with the question, if you are going to wake up and cross the threshold, do you really want to wake up at all?’
New commissions, new skills
Following the success of Persephone’s Dream, Fat Lady Opera received two new commissions – Twelve Points of Tide and A Song for Kent.
These commissions presented a new challenge for Tania who had rarely been commissioned as a composer. And there was still the ongoing COVID restrictions to wrestle with.
Twelve Points of Tide is a mini opera, written by Tania for the cello and for herself as singer. It explores the corrosive and additive qualities of tidal movement, through the eyes of Mona, Minor Goddess of the Silty Waterways.
Mona has a superpower, she can hold back the tide, for a while at least. But as she combs the shore carrying her burdensome haul, her Shipping Forecast itch gets stronger. The piece, which explores guilt and loss and the urge for release, is structured around seven ‘shipping forecasts’ that range across Thames Estuary locations along the Gravesham riverfront.
Shipping Forecast 3: Skimming Skin
Shipping Forecast 4: Fret
You can hear six of the seven Shipping Forecasts and download the libretto here.
‘I’d never really call myself a composer because I don’t think I’ve earned the permission to be called one yet,’ Tania admits. In writing Twelve Points of Tide, I ended up joining a sort of cello mentoring group to learn to write. I feel my knowledge about string writing has definitely come on in leaps and bounds!’
Twelve Points of Tide had it’s debut at the 2021 Estuary Festival, played over the tannoy from LV21 , and with the music available to listen to online. Tania hopes to produce the work as a fully staged opera in November this year.
Song for Kent was commissioned by Sound UK as part of the national Song for Us project , which celebrates lives and communities through music.
Despite, COVID restrictions, Tania saw it as an opportunity to involve the audience, as part of the process, right from the beginning.
‘The brief was to write a song for Kent, based on people’s experiences last year,’ she says. ‘I wanted to make it interesting, relevant and meaningful – a celebration of friendship and kindness against the backdrop of the isolation and solitude brought about by lockdown.
‘I was inspired by the Ram Dass quote, We’re all just walking each other home. If we can be comfortable with the fact that we are solitary entities that make our way through the world then, if we can be gracious and give a wave of encouragement to other entities as we pass them, that’s a life well lived.’
To kick start the songwriting process for Walking Each Other Home, Tania organised a series of group walks along the Kent coast. She also organised ‘companionship telephone calls’ for those unable to join the walks.
‘I just wanted people to get outside again in a space that’s welcoming,’ Tania explains. ‘It was very informal. We chatted and every now and then we stopped to sing. And those that didn’t want to sing just looked around, or took photographs and listened. I made lots of notes about what people said – those really profound and interesting comments, along with the mundane, and I incorporated them into the libretto.’
The content of Walking Each Other Home ranges from the big question – What is the most important thing on a long walk, boots or socks? (Tania says ‘socks’) – to more reflective remarks.
Tania was particularly affected by a telephone conversation where a woman described visiting the sea as ‘standing on the edge’.
‘She told me, it doesn’t sound like a safe place, but it’s not the end, it’s a space for possibility,’ Tania recalls. ‘And I’d been thinking about life as a long journey and that we’re all on the road to ‘the sea’ and it crystallised for me into a section of the song called ‘the parting of the ways’, which is a reflection on loss, and how the rites of grieving have been hammered because we haven’t been able to be with people.’
‘Having the audience there right from the start has given it an interesting and different perspective,’ she continues. ‘As a director, you want to be telling people, this is where we are going and what we’re doing. But actually, not knowing where the piece was going to lead was freeing. And with the process as much part of the final product as the final product itself, it has just been joyous!’
A Song for Kent will be performed live aboard LV21, by RiverVoice Community Choir and Fat Lady Opera Community Chorus, during the Gravesham Waterfront Weekend, on Saturday 7th August 2021, from 2.30 – 3.30pm. A streamed recording will be broadcast at 12.30pm on 11 August 2021 at www.asongforus.org
Fat Lady Opera
Tania invites you to send in pictures of your walking boots!