14 Nov 2023

The new NZ Opera: progressive rather than radical

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 14 November 2023
General Director of New Zealand Opera, Brad Cohen photographed at their Auckland studio. 01 July 2023

General Director of New Zealand Opera, Brad Cohen photographed at their Auckland studio. 01 July 2023 Photo: Greg Bowker

It's an unusual job being an opera conductor, spending your professional life in a pit, with your head poking out just in front of the stage.

So if you're an experienced opera conductor looking for a new challenge, perhaps taking over an opera company  – which in the past few years saw several of its board members quit and had a group of cultural heavyweights including one of the country's leading tenors calling for a review of its operations – is just the right fit.

NZ Opera's recent history certainly hasn't put Brad Cohen off becoming its new General Director.

Cohen told RNZ Concert host Bryan Crump it was an opportunity he just couldn't pass up.

"There's something wonderful about being able to lead a company and shape the direction of opera's future, and to do it for the whole nation."

Raised in Australia, Cohen was born in Mauritius to missionary parents  – and yes, he reckons their missionary zeal has rubbed off on him a bit.

In answer to the question, why should the taxpayer fund an opera company, he says this:

"If opera is not funded by the taxpayer, its power of storytelling, its connection with audiences and its emotional force are in danger of being sequestered or owned by one sector of society.

"We see that in some countries in the world where it's private wealth that provides for opera, and that tends to dictate not only the kind of audiences that go to that, but the subject matter that is dealt with."

"For me, opera is a universal resource. It uses one very simple element, the human singing voice, and it does one very simple thing with that, and that is tell stories through the power of that singing voice."

"This is a resource that is the first thing we as infants hear...we hear our mothers singing to us...it's what we grow up with, it's the only instrument everyone is born with...and it belongs to us all."

It's that drive to extend the reach of classical music which led Cohen, the opera conductor, into opera administration.

A decade and a half ago, Cohen became involved in creating start-up companies offering new music technology.

One idea revolved around technology enabling sound, video, programme notes and even the score to sit on the one platform. Another attempted to make it easier for people to search for the 'right' version of a classical piece.

Cohen's experience wrangling start-ups led to openings in music administration. He became the artistic director of West Australian Opera and now he has headed east to Aotearoa, taking over at NZ Opera from Thomas de Mallet Burgess.

However, Cohen made sure his NZ Opera job description also allows him to step back into the orchestra pit.

Next year, he'll conduct the company's production of Rossini's Le Comte Ory.

It's a medieval farce featuring marauding monks, men dressed as women dressed as men, three-in-a bed romps, and make-believe Indian fakirs.

Material that makes Luke di Somma's opera The Unruly Tourists sound positively mainstream.

New Zealand Opera's decision earlier this year to stage a production based on the true story of a bunch of Brits behaving badly in Godzone garnered criticism, but it also generated publicity.

Can we expect more of the same from Cohen?

His answer suggests he'll be assessing the cultural boundaries of his new job before he starts pushing them.

"We're a progressive company rather than a radical one. That is, in search of the new, we don't leave the old behind, and that we are not doctrinaire in our approach, but inclusive."

In 2024, along with the Cohen conducted Rossini, NZ Opera will stage Verdi's Rigoletto.

A scene from Rigoletto at The Met

A scene from Rigoletto at The Met Photo: Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera

There's a concert performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde with the Auckland Philhamonia, while the 21st century gets a look-in with Jonathan Dove's 2011 opera, Mansfield Park – even if it is based on Jane Austen's early-19th-century novel.

Tristan and Isolde

Tristan and Isolde Photo: John William Waterhouse, Public Domain

Cohen would love to see New Zealanders adopting opera as part of the their cultural identity – as is the case in Italy – or packing out performances of a fully-staged Wozzeck, as they did recently in Paris (as opposed to Orchestra Wellington's successful semi-staging of Berg's 20th century masterpiece).

"In European culture there is still a real sense of communal ownership...in Anglo Saxon countries, you could argue that there's been a small hijacking of opera by the elite."

Opera NZ's season of Mansfield Park begins next April.

You can check out its entire 2024 season here.