8 Apr 2024

Settling into the director's chair

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 8 April 2024
NZ Opera's 2024 Friedlander Resident Artist, Matthew Kereama

Matthew Kereama Photo: Dean O'Gorman

Matthew Kereama came to opera by the usual route - as a singer. But for this particular talented young baritone,  being a singer wasn't enough.

By the time he'd reached the end of the third year of his Auckland University musical performance degree, his enthusiasm not just for the vocal side of music drama and theatre, but also the writing and acting, led him to do an honours in opera directing.

He didn't regret it.

"Any time I see a play or see an opera, I get so passionate about all aspects of it, and the holistic view of a production. I think, at its heart, I really enjoy working collaboratively with a group of people working towards one outcome."

Kereama is this year's Friedlander Resident Artist, with NZ Opera.

Having been an assistant director in the company's production of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutti" in 2023, this year Kereama is assistant director in Jonathan Dove's opera Mansfield Park, based on the Jane Austen novel with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton.

Speaking with RNZ Concert host Bryan Crump, Kereama says as a performer he was always thinking about what else was going on stage around him.

"I always had too many questions, I always had too many offers, and from that moment that lead me into wanting to take a step back [off the stage into the director's chair]."

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Even as an opera performer, Kereama was more interested in the bigger picture - the one the audience sees. Photo: 123rf

Still, Kereama believes his background as a singer makes it easier for him to work with that other powerhouse of your typical opera production: the music director.

"It's a real art really, kind of negotiating those spaces. You both hold large artistic views on the piece, and it's very easy to come out of rhythm or out of sync with that person."

Kereama's role with NZ Opera is partly funded by the Friedlander Foundation, which has the philanthropic goal of reducing inequality.

As a Māori (Kereama is Ngati Manomano), he takes the role he can play in bringing a Māori perspective to a very western cultural tradition seriously.

"I think one of the biggest things that I like to implement, is placing the person first, above the performance and the work ... we have this tradition, and we have it in all professions, where we ask people to leave their problems at the door ... my ethos, my ideology asks you to bring your problems into the room."

Whether that involves being able to bring a child into the rehearsal space, or even as simple as someone waiting for an important phone call having a phone in the room.

"It's just those little things that enable a performer to be more vulnerable, to be more trusting."

Kereama believes such manaakitanga lifts the mana of the whole production.

But while he may be an emissary from a slightly different way of doing things, Kereama is also a lover of the traditional classical repertoire.

He lists some of his favourite opera composers: Mozart, Rossini and Wagner.

The Ring Cycle. Kereama wouldn't mind having a go. Photo:

Which is another reason Kereama likes directing. As a singer his voice might limit him to certain roles, but as a director he can take on anything.

"As an absolute lover of opera, the opportunity to work on so many different pieces and so many different styles really excites me, and Wagner is right up there. Give me the whole weekend [to direct The Ring] and I'll have it."