9 Jul 2021

'A treasured art form': Opera community calls on government to review sector

5:58 pm on 9 July 2021

The who's who of New Zealand opera and the arts has written to the government asking for an independent review of the sector, following claims of mismanagement by the New Zealand Opera company.

Witi Ihimaera

Former NZ Opera board member Witi Ihimaera is calling for a review to go wider than just the New Zealand Opera company. Photo: WORD Christchurch

In May, Witi Ihimaera, Murray Shaw and Rachael Walkinton resigned from the board of NZ Opera citing concern over the artistic direction the company was heading in, and what they described as a "lack of thought and responsibility toward those who love opera".

Earlier this month the three former board members, along with a host of others, wrote to the Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Carmel Sepuloni asking for support to commission a review that would look at the structure, funding and governance of the national opera company.

The letter raised concerns about how the funding from Creative NZ was being spent.

"[The three former board members] were alarmed that since 2019 the generous investment of almost $9 million funded mainly through Creative New Zealand, had not been deployed in a manner resulting in the flourishing of opera in New Zealand.

"Since their resignations, there has been an upswelling [sic] of concern from sponsors, opera audiences and professionals within the sector, widely reported in the media."

The letter went on to detail other problems that needed addressing.

"They include failures of board and company leadership, structural staffing imbalances, and the adherence to a funding model that has led to fiscal misdirection and inequities in distribution of available funds.

"This has resulted in the implementation of an artistic programme with crucial problems, for instance, one in which the core repertoire is not being sustained, and a situation where opera performance has limited regional expansion."

The letter said as a result, the opera community felt that the artform it loved had not been treated with respect.

"The signatories to this letter are aware that the problems listed above are being addressed in-house by Creative New Zealand and New Zealand Opera. However, the upswelling [sic] referred to has not stopped.

"Emotions are still running high."

It asked that a meeting with three or four representatives be set up to kōrero on the kaupapa for the review.

Witi Ihimaera, who is a signatory on the letter, said a review and reset of opera as an art form in New Zealand was necessary.

"Opera in Aotearoa New Zealand is a taonga art form. It is a treasured art form. It is the oldest art form that we have and it needs to be preserved and it needs to flourish."

He said a review needed to go wider than just the New Zealand Opera company.

"Apart from the fact that New Zealand Opera really did need to be looked at in terms of its operation, there was something bigger, a bigger task for us to do. And that was to seek a review of the entire opera sector in New Zealand to reset it to establish a new kaupapa because it's actually quite an amazingly huge sector."

He said this could mean the end of the New Zealand Opera company as we know it.

"What we'll be hoping for is that the minister will look at all of these providers including all of these providers within the Māori sector and with the Asian sector and then have a look at that and have a look at New Zealand Opera's situation in there. That might mean for instance, that in the future, New Zealand Opera might not continue to exist."

The signatories to the letter include: Witi Ihimaera, Simon O'Neill, Rod Biss' Joan Caulfield, Conal Coad, Peter Coates, Professor Richard Donald, Gennie de Lange, Flora Edwards, Dame Jenny Gibbs, Richard Greager, Janet Jennings, Ta Tīmoti Kāretu; Peter Lockwood; Paul & Christine McLaren, Ben Makisi, Dr Margaret Medlyn, Barry Mora, Barbara Moses, Madeleine Pierard, Tom Roa, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Murray Shaw, Martin Snell, Rachael Walkinton, Carmel Walsh, Professor Albert Wendt among others.

'Constructive debate ... is healthy' - NZ Opera

An NZ Opera spokesperson said the company had been in touch with the minister regarding the letter but did not confirm if it would support a review of the sector as a whole.

Creative New Zealand chief executive Stephen Wainwright said The Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa had no current intention to commission an independent review of the opera sector.

"We recognise New Zealand Opera is in a rebuilding phase, and like many other arts organisations, its programme delivery has been impacted by Covid-19. We understand that this is causing some tensions within the community and consider that constructive debate about how the arts contribute to public life is healthy.

"Creative New Zealand is continuing to work closely with New Zealand Opera and is actively monitoring developments."

Minister Carmel Sepuloni's office confirmed it had received the letter.

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