“If we serve up the same old cat food, then no one gets to taste anything different,” says New Zealand Opera’s General Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess, who announced the 2020 season today.
He says opera should be an art-form for many, not just for some. This follows NZO establishing a strategy addressing the need to reflect the country’s diverse communities.
New strategy takes opera to new places
In 2020 NZO will continue with large scale operas – including Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro - but also looks to expand into the regions.
“It is certainly an opera company that is heading off in a very different direction and seeking an answer to what opera means in New Zealand, today… tomorrow and over the course of the next five years,” he says. “Of course, we honour and respect tradition, but we also need to reimagine for our future.”
Part of the change is to look at unique and interesting spaces to perform in. In 2020 Poulenc and Cocteau’s opera The Human Voice will be staged in hotel rooms in the regions. The opera invites the audience to play “detective” in an examination of love and the human condition.
“An opera in a hotel room with 20 people literally inches away from the performer does many things,” he says. “It opens up the emotional world of the audience in a way that is very different from being in a large theatre.
“But it also challenges the opera performer to think about their art and their craft in a different way. Both the audience and the art form are benefiting.”
NZO will also head out into the botanic gardens around the country during January for its summer series.
Creating a “cultural dialogue”
De Mallet Burgess has selected operas he feels are relevant to today’s world. It will be the first time in 10 years NZO has performed The Marriage of Figaro. It will travel to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch in June and July.
“The choice of this opera really revolved around theme that I wanted to explore and this theme is revolution, redemption and resignation,” he says. “I feel that the these are three aspects of our current world, our current living that we are grappling with.”
He says he wants to create a “cultural dialogue” around the “major issues confronting … the human race”.
Making opera more “inclusive”
Bringing people together from all walks of life is behind the programming of Handel’s baroque opera Semele, a “peculiar hybrid between sacred music and opera”. It comes to Auckland in September.
It will be performed at the Holy Trinity Cathedral and will bring together the NZ Opera Chorus, NZ Opera Baroque Orchestra and the cathedral choir. He also hopes it will open an opportunity for new audiences to engage. “We're finding a way in this production to actually involve people participating in a more inclusive way,” he says. “And also in a way which we hope will expand the opportunities for people to experience this amazing art form.”
Challenging the art form
In March NZO will present Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King as part of the New Zealand Festival and the Auckland Arts Festival.
The “fantastic piece” explores the complicated relationship between mental illness and power with character King George III. The “immersive experience” sees audiences engaging with the performance in two different ways – one group will sit outside listening through headphones, with another group being up close to the performers.
De Mallet Burgess says he hopes it challenges traditional notions of opera and mental health. “It’s not only an extraordinary piece, but it's an extraordinary concept around the staging that that works on multiple layers,” he says. “It's the purpose of art to challenge, to question and to get us to do the same. So, I'm hoping that this really bold and immersive experiment is going to come off and people will support it.”
NZO supporting and nurturing talent
Under the new strategy NZO is commissioning more work for New Zealand voices and while that comes with risks – particularly financial risks – de Mallet Burgess is willing to take them.
“We need to hear the voices of our society, our communities, and so in order to do that, we need to commission new work,” he says. “It's also about engaging with Maori and Pacific arts and artists and engaging with and supporting the opera sector in New Zealand as a whole, for the benefit of audiences and for the benefit of the art form.”
He says he’s starting small but will put out a call next year for writers, composers, singers and instrumentalists who want to create new works in collaboration with NZO as part of Voice of Aotearoa 6:24. “This is an opportunity for people who would never have thought of writing for the medium of opera to get involved and for the company to involve new and different voices in the creation of new work,” he says.
Expressions of interest, the process and timeline will be announced next year.
The company will also continue its established relationship with the Dame Malvina Major Foundation to nurture new talent, including sopranos Felicity Tomkins and Anna Simmons, and tenor Harry Grigg, who will perform with the Manukau Symphony Orchestra in August.
For the full season visit the New Zealand Opera website.