There has been a crisis looming around New Zealand Opera for some time coming to a head earlier this year when three board members resigned from NZ Opera. Witi Ihimaera, Murray Shaw and Rachael Walkinton stepped down because they believed that the artistic direction the company was headed in the wrong direction and not meeting the expectations of the audience.
There were several flash points in the leadup to their decision including the announcement of an opera based on the unruly tourists of a couple of years ago commissioned by the general director of the New Zealand Opera, Thomas de Mallet Burgess. It was intended as something of a comic opera with one of the writers Amanda Kennedy saying “It may come across as a musical that is full of comedy, but the show actually brings a lot of integrity, and it is likely to be a bit of a moral compass for those watching. It’s a comedy opera, but it’s about real issues.”
Ihimaera noted that it wasn’t primarily that new performance. “We resigned because one of our jobs as governors was to mitigate risk to the reputation of the company and what I saw, was a huge upswelling of discontent and confusion about the artistic direction of the company”.
Ihimaera said the strategy of reimagining opera was a fine but the trio felt traditional supporters of opera had not been taken along.
“It’s to do with actually making sure that the opera company and its artistic direction provides what people want. And also, at the same time, it has had a very hard fought for, long-standing, loyal audience£.
“That was why we felt that we had to do what we had to do, was to ask questions, was to ask, is that audience – the audience that would provide the money for something like the unruly tourists – was that being cared for as well? Was it being taken along on this journey?”
Opera companies around the world are facing various problems is sustaining audiences, obtaining funding, and presenting relevant and financially viable programmes.
The five most performed works internationally are La Traviata, The Magic Flute, La Bohème, Carmen, and The Barber of Seville.
Some of these and other struggle to find relevance with a modern-day audience especially with some of the racist and misogynistic elements in Puccini’s madame Butterfly and Bizet’s Carmen, the stereotyping on Puccini’s Turandot and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado. Then there is the touches of anti-Semitism in Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the Muslim caricatures in Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio.
Another area of concern is the presentation of contemporary works and themes which “The Unruly Tourists” was seen as addressing. Over the past few years the opera company has made some attempts with Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Eight Songs for a Mad King” and the short, hotel room-based work The Human Voice (La Voix Humaine) by Francis Poulenc .These were fine productions but had very limited audiences. The only main stage contemporary work the company has staged recently was John Adams’ “Nixon in China” in 2016.
The other major problem facing opera companies is retaining old audiences and acquiring new audiences. They are caught between trying to attract those thousands of newly retired 65-year-olds who are relatively easy to find or search for a new youth audience who can be fickle and not as keen to spend big sums on entertainment.
Ihimaera and several dozen concerned individuals have now written a joint letter to the Minister of Arts and Culture, the Honourable Carmel Sepuloni outlining their concerns and the needs for action.
Among other things they have requested that the Minister commission an independent comprehensive review into the opera sector in New Zealand which would look at the structure, funding, and governance of the national opera company to ensure the long-term sustainability of opera.
They also asked for a review of the funding model and stewardship of funds to ensure opera’s long-term viability of opera in New Zealand.
While the signatories have not explicitly asked for a different method of funding many people in the arts community winder why the other national arts organizations such as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, The Royal New Zealand Ballet and Te Matatini are funding directly from the Ministry of Arts and Culture while the opera company must apply to Creative New Zealand.
Many other in the arts community believe there are other issues which need to be addressed such as funding and governance of the regional opera companies and the balance between core repertoire, exposure to new idea as well as New Zealand content.