Opera agenda

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By Tim Brown

Tim Brown is a Wellington director of NZ Opera and also a trustee of the Creative Capital Arts Trust which puts on the annual Fringe Festival, CubaDupa and Classical On Cuba Festival.

Tim Brown, a director of the NZ Opera Board, responds to Simon O’Neill’s opinion piece (published here) on the state of opera in New Zealand.

Opera, as everyone knows, is drama set to music for instrumentalists and highly trained singers. For most people their definition would probably also include emotional impact. Sometimes humour (The Marriage of Figaro); more often tragedy (La Bohème, Carmen, Rigoletto, Madame Butterfly, Macbeth).

The emotional impact is achieved through the quality of performance and the visual staging. In a small space intimacy can achieve this, but in a larger theatre effective, impactful delivery is expensive (orchestra, singers, sets, etc). In New Zealand to stage an international-calibre opera in three cities costs about $2 million. If the production is well received the total audience may get to 10,000 people. The figures will indicate the economic challenge of producing world-class large-scale opera in this county.

Fortunately, central and local government recognise that opera is a widely loved and performed art form, and provides funding to the national company, New Zealand Opera.

However, government funding comes with conditions (as it should) and, in any case New Zealand Opera recognises that it has a role far beyond large-scale traditional productions. Its goals include broadening and deepening the audience, providing opera outside of the three main centres, undertaking smaller-scale and experimental works, supporting New Zealand works, talent (singers, designer, directors, etc.), Māori and Pacific connections and artists, improving accessibility through digital channels, and introducing young people to opera via schools and community projects.

NZ Opera has a staff of 21 (full and part time) to deliver this agenda. Obviously it is expressly agreed by the directors of NZ Opera who sign off the annual budget. The funding and output of NZ Opera is also scrutinised by Creative New Zealand and details are set out for the public in the annual report.

But this range of activities and funding constraints mean that each year NZ Opera has sufficient financial resources to perform only one or two large-scale traditional operas. That is practical, but ensures dissatisfaction. The positive response to this takes the form of Wellington Opera’s production of Don Giovanni, the less positive is the criticism of NZ Opera for misallocating resources.

Opera has a passionate and large community of people who absolutely love the art form, and many donate and are willing to put in voluntary time. But unless this community can work together to a common goal, they are not going to deliver the goal.

As a Wellington director of NZ Opera, that is what I am seeking to achieve for the Wellington audience; more and better opera to be enjoyed by a large and diverse group of people. I realise that these comments are essentially about governance, accountability and finance. That is only a part of NZ Opera and the artistic part is more important. Poor financial management is survivable, poor artistic output is not. On that front the audience must draw their own conclusions, but right now it’s hard not to be satisfied with the audience response to the recent productions of Semele and Ihitai ‘Avei’a / Star Navigator, and the current production of Figaro. If you doubt me, Figaro is a sellout in Auckland, but there are still a few seats available in Wellington or you could catch it in Christchurch.


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