ANYONE familiar with the opening scenes of Charlie Kaufman’s mind-bending comedy Being John Malkovich might have some idea what to expect from Gala, a bonkers-sounding mini-opera coming to Hammersmith.
In the film, an unfortunate puppeteer leads his wooden lovers on a sexually charged dance across a makeshift street theatre, only to be met with a censorious punch in the face from an outraged parent.
Gala, which tells the story of Salvador Dali’s wife and one of her many affairs, brings a similarly adult theme to the world of puppetry, with equally humorous results, according to director Bill Bankes-Jones.
Gala is 79 and has fallen for her latest sweetheart, 21-year-old Jeff Fenholt, later of Black Sabbath fame, in Ergo Phizmiz’s 20-minute comic opera about art, passion and betrayal.
Speaking to Bankes-Jones, it appears he is determined to go head to head with Gala’s husband – he of the melting watches and stilt-walking elephants – in the crazy stakes.
"We’re having huge fun working on Gala. It’s an amazing story about a 79-year-old nymphomaniac and her 21-year-old suitor," he said. "It’s quite adult and I think using puppets gives you the freedom to do things you might not get away with otherwise."
Dali appears as a ‘steam-punk robot’, spewing out art and recorded quotes as he watches his wife’s infidelity.
This is appropriate, says Bankes-Jones, for a man who took pleasure in watching his wife getting together with other men.
"Gala seemed to love sleeping with other men and he seemed to enjoy watching it, so in some ways it was the perfect marriage,” he said. "When she met Jeff it was as if she fell in love properly for the first time. She was besotted and acted like a young girl again."
Gala is part of the Tête à Tête opera festival, now in its seventh year, which encompasses everything from wacky new operas to fresh takes on old favourites such as Madam Butterfly.
The festival was set up to address the lack of smaller opera venues in London, which has some 100 fringe theatres but only one which regularly produces opera, according to Bankes-Jones.
This year’s edition features 34 productions, with more than 100 performances taking place at Riverside Studios and in the streets of Hammersmith.
Towards the odder end of the spectrum is Dart’s River, which is about a stretch of water falling in love with a swimmer before exacting a terrible revenge for his ‘infidelity’.
Inspired by creator Kerry Andrew’s love of outdoor swimming, it is also directed by Bankes-Jones.
Despite the bizarre plot, Bankes-Jones describes the 30-minute opera as a more serious and poetic piece, with a feeling of timelessness.
The show is still very much a work in progress but the artistic director is excited about the challenge of creating an underwater soundscape to draw the audience in to the story.
“The festival’s very much about experimentation rather than always delivering a finished product which has been years in the making. You’re taking the audience with you on that adrenaline rush,” he said.
Other highlights include The End Of Civilisation As We Know It, about the growing trend for surveillance, in which a member of the audience will be invited to get into bed and be interviewed about death while being fed cake and wine.
But the show which has generated perhaps the biggest buzz is And The Crowd Wept, exploring the public reaction to the death of Jade Goody.
The controversial subject matter earned its writers a spot on breakfast TV, where, Bankes-Jones said, presenter Eamonn Holmes suggested they were exploiting the late reality TV star.
“I don’t think he understood what the opera was about," countered Bankes-Jones. "It’s about celebrity, public mass bonkers behaviour and the media tearing up innocent subjects like Jade Goody. It’s more about Eamonn Holmes than it is about Jade Goody.”
Tête à Tête – The Opera Festival takes place from August 1 to 18 at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, with performances also popping up in surrounding streets. Tickets cost from just £7.50. Visit www.tete-a-tete.org.uk for full details.