Twelve Questions: Stuart Maunder, general director New Zealand Opera company

Australian Stuart Maunder has led the New Zealand Opera company for the past two years. He directed Tosca, now out in cinemas nationwide, and confesses to an unhealthy obsession with Gilbert and Sullivan operettas
Stuart Maunder from the New Zealand Opera company. Photo / Greg Bowker
Stuart Maunder from the New Zealand Opera company. Photo / Greg Bowker

1. A film of your production of Tosca last year has just been released in cinemas. Is this something new for NZ Opera?

It is. We want to get as many New Zealanders as possible enjoying the opera. Touring shows is incredibly expensive. A South Australian Opera director once told me it was cheaper to bring an entire audience down to Adelaide and put them up in a hotel for a night with dinner than to take a small show to Mt Gambia. The Royal Opera House and New York Met have shown there's a market for cinema releases so we jumped at the offer by Shotz Productions. Cameras are so good these days you don't have to change the lighting or the staging to get up close and personal with the singers. Radio NZ's sound recording is top quality and captures the palpable sense of excitement of a live performance.

2. Why do you love opera?

The joy of opera is it strikes straight to the heart. You feel it. There is nothing like experiencing the opening chords of Tosca played live in a theatre - Pum, pum, pum, pum, CRASH! - They go straight through your soul.

It's a wonderful art form and people will always want to go back to the great works of art.

3. Can you recall your first encounter with opera?

It was an amateur dramatic society production of Carmen. But my big Road to Damascus moment came when I was at university in Sydney and a friend dragged me along to Ingmar Bergman's film The Magic Flute. I was gobsmacked - it's the only word for it. It was the most beautiful telling of a tale and told in sublime music, I mean it's "close-to-God" music. For many of us The Flute stands alone.

4. Was musical theatre a big part of your childhood?

I grew up on a farm but always wanted to be on stage performing. My parents had no idea what they had in me. My mother used to recall with monotonous regularity how when the vicar came to call I would mime to Julie Andrews singing My Fair Lady. I kept performing while studying law and when the Australian Opera gave me a job as a trainee assistant stage manager I quit university. Life's too short.

5. Did you contemplate a career in singing?

As Noel Coward said, "I can't sing but I know how to, which is quite different." I did a few years of lessons but no formal opera training. When I was 40 I began doing a one-man Gilbert and Sullivan show all over Australia and in England to raise funds for opera companies - it's a bit of silliness really.

6. After spending most of your career in Opera Australia, plus a decade-long stint at Covent Garden, why did you move to NZ?

It was a great opportunity to head up an opera company. I want to find artistically satisfying outcomes while still being financially responsible. We're in surplus now and need to stay that way. We can't expect a knight on a white charger to bail us out.

7. What changes have you made so far?

We used to perform one opera a year in Christchurch. We're now proudly adding a third title: The Magic Flute, Sweeney Todd and Traviata. We're doing more collaborations with festivals and the Auckland Philharmonia. You need to do one Top 10 opera a year to bring in new audiences, but if you do more you'll soon run out. Our regulars' top 10 would probably include three Puccinis, M. Butterfly, Boheme and Tosca; three Mozarts, Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute; three Verdis, Rigoletto, Traviata and Aida; and of course Carmen. We always try to do something slightly "off the beaten track" too. This year it's Sweeney Todd, a musical thriller.

8. Do serious opera fans turn their noses up at operas that have crossed over from musicals?

It would be hard to pooh pooh Sweeney Todd because it requires serious vocal chops and is being performed in almost all of the great opera house in the world. You'd question whether some others - West Side Story or Anything Goes - fit an operatic context.

9. You brought My Fair Lady from Australia to Auckland in 2009. Why was it not as successful at the box office here after being so successful over the Ditch?

Who knows?! It was the beginning of the GFC. The problem with this country, love it to death, is that we have a very small population. To cover the cost of bringing the whole team over from Australia, we had to fill the Civic Theatre for eight performances a week for umpteen weeks. I think you have to grow it here.

10. How hard is it to attract audiences to more challenging works?

It's no accident that the rise of operettas and musicals came after Wagner decided to create the "perfect art work". Not everyone wants to go down the path of "high art". Puccini unashamedly wrote songs that would fit on one side of a 78 record. People say Wagner is too high-falutin', difficult and long. What it requires is a different mind-set. When you immerse yourself in it, your sense of time shifts on to a different plane.

11. Should opera receive public funding?

Yes, absolutely. People need to experience this art form. It's life-changing, it's thrilling and it's expensive. Opera only started being funded from the public purse since WWII in England and it still isn't in America. Before that only the rich experienced it. We do an extraordinary amount of education outreach to try to broaden our audience.

12. Are you a New Zealander yet?

Opera is an international world these days. You have to be prepared to go where the work is. I live in an apartment in K Rd with my Abyssinian cat. Although I'm fiercely Australian I am passionate about bringing home New Zealand singers at the top of their game. The problem is there isn't enough work here to sustain an international career. We need an opera company strong enough to continue bringing people like Simon O'Neill and Philip Rhodes - and one day Pene and Amitai Pati - home to strut their stuff.

- NZ Herald

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