Terry Grimley previews an evening of operatic miniatures.
The stereotypical opera performance has hundreds of people on stage and goes on for hours.
So the format for the evening of opera on offer at the Alexandra Theatre tomorrow night might take a bit of getting used to. A cast of just three singers, accompanied by a chamber group of violin, cello, clarinet/bass clarinet, flute/piccolo, trombone and French horn will perform no fewer than six operas, each lasting just 15 minutes.
What's more, the six teams of librettists and composers feature such apparently non-operatic talents as singer-songwriter Helen Chadwick, Bob the Builder scriptwriter Simon Nicholson, jazz saxophonist Jason Yarde, and hip hop artist Jonzi D.
The operas cover a wide range of themes, including a parrot blowing the gaff on a cheating wife, three characters witnessing a catastrophe, a Russian's search for the childhood comfort of his nanny ending in carnage, and 40 years of history traced through the occupants of a Canadian house.
The package, called Blind Date, is the creation of Tete a Tete, a company which specialises in creating new, small scale opera, which is making its Birmingham debut.
"We did our first show in 1998, so we've been going for nearly ten years," says founder and artistic director Bill Bankes-Jones. "We've never got to Birmingham before. There's not really the right place for us there. In London we've done the Riverside Studios, Battersea Arts Centre and the Bridewell.
"So we're really pleased to be at the Alex. We've come up with quite an interesting design that I think will work very well there."
As chair of the Opera and Music Theatre Forum, Bankes-Jones has some interesting statistics at his fingertips. Last year there were 150 new opera productions in the UK, of which more than half were of new works.
New full-scale works, like James MacMillan's The Sacrifice (which, by coincidence, plays the Hippodrome the night after Blind Date plays the Alex) may be increasingly rare, but small scale music-theatre is now the norm.
"There's something not so substantial about getting six short bites, but the evening in itself is quite substantial," says Bankes-Jones.
"I think that's a very good thing, particularly with new operas. You might go and see a twoand-a-half-hour opera and be miserable after ten minutes, whereas here you know that after ten minutes there will be something else. It's very like short stories, really - it's a different genre.
"In terms of forces it's like comparing chamber music to a symphony, but the reality of it is that each piece carries an enormous power."
Tete a Tete has specialised in matching up authors and composers over the years, and has even used the term "speed-dating" for one of its initiatives. At a festival it ran this summer 25 shows were created in three weeks - far removed from the traditional scenario where, as Bankes-Jones says: "If you become important and old enough you might get an opera commission."
Clearly the company doesn't restrict itself to a prescribed list of classically-approved composers, although on the other hand it doesn't mind working with them either. It has a project in the pipeline, for example, with Philip Cashian, who has written several works for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.
"People like Anna Meredith and Chris Mayo - especially Anna - they're very much from that world. But Jason Yarde is a very able composer and he's written for the London Symphony Orchestra.
"We're also thrilled to be having Helen Chadwick, who is someone who is not classically trained at all. She's very hard to catego-rise. She worked as an actress and got used more and more as a voice coach for actors. She has released about half-a-dozen albums and some people call it folk.
"When we did an opera about having babies somebody said 'I gave birth listening to Helen Chadwick'."
Blind Date features words and music by Gary Carpenter, Simon Nicholson, Helen Chadwick, Alasdair Middleton, Chris Mayo, Christopher Crebolder, Anna Meredith, Philip Ridley, Jason Yarde, Jonzi D, Julian Grant and Meredith Oakes.
You can see it at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday night at 7.30pm. All tickets cost £10 (Box office: 0870 607 7533).