Want fries with your opera?

By Dionne Christian

NZ Opera’s director tells Dionne Christian how young opera singers are reaching a new-generation audience.
Filipe Manu, Jonathan Eyers, Katherine McIndoe and Clinton Fung in The Elixir of Love.  Photo / Nick Reed
Filipe Manu, Jonathan Eyers, Katherine McIndoe and Clinton Fung in The Elixir of Love. Photo / Nick Reed

It's too long, it's in another language, it's boring and it's highfalutin'. When it comes to excuses to not go to the opera, NZ Opera general director Stuart Maunder has heard them all.

"And they usually come from people who have never been."

Today, NZ Opera turns up the roller door at its Onehunga Technical Centre for an open day everyone is invited to. You'll see where sets and costumes, some of which are exported around the world, are created, how opera singers train and a production is put together. You can play dress-ups, putting on costumes and hats for photos, and see four of our most promising young opera singers perform.

Filipe Manu, 23, Katherine McIndoe, 21, Jonathan Eyers, 21, and Clinton Fung, 23, alongside music director David Kelly, star in this year's NZ Opera in Schools production, The Elixir of Love. It's just 45 minutes long and set in a place many of us know: a fish 'n' chip shop in a small New Zealand town.

It's a familiar boy-meets-girl-but-she's-not-interested story, played for laughs by having a young fry cook, Nemorino (Manu), fall in love with Adina (McIndoe), the stuck-up daughter of his boss. It's all a world away from the northern Italian city of Bergamo where composer Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti wrote it in 1832. That highlights what Maunder means when he says opera is a living and breathing art form capable of amusing 21st century dwellers.

In the original, written in just six weeks, Nemorino faces the prospect of not being able to win Adina's heart because he has to go to war; in this version, it's because a rakishly good-looking film star Belcore (Eyers) is in town and flirting up a storm with her. Just when all appears to be lost, travelling salesman Dulcamara (Fung) arrives in town touting a potion supposedly capable of curing anything. Could this be the elixir of love Nemorino is looking for?

This year, 6500 school children throughout the country will see The Elixir of Love and so far, those who have seen it love it. Fung says thanks to Sol3 Mio, the New Zealand singing trio of tenor brothers Pene and Amitai Pati from Mangere and their North Shore baritone cousin, Moses Mackay, there's a much greater awareness of opera.

He, Manu, McIndoe and Eyers say it's a real buzz to see the kids laughing and clapping throughout their performance and then to hear the after-show comments - "your voice must be sore" - and questions. They're frequently told they don't look like opera singers because they're young and slim.

The colourful set, costumes and music can all be packed up to fit, along with the five performers and a stage manager, into vans. The record for setting up for last year's production of Rossini's Barber of Seville from the van to the stage was seven minutes, and this year's cast want to beat that.

"When they tour schools, they get mobbed because there's a role-model element to what they're doing," says Maunder. "They're showing what opera can be and that it really is for everyone."

He's a pragmatist, well aware of the need to change perceptions of opera as an elite art form and demonstrate how it can "touch the soul and heart". The key to maintaining artistic integrity, balancing budgets and keeping the historic art form alive is to offer variety and demystify what goes on behind-the-scenes.

"Some operas are long and many are in another language but the thing about opera is that there are so many different kinds so we have to offer this variety," he says, "but we also need to highlight the importance of going [to a full opera] with the right mind-set.

"You have to give yourself over to the music, to accept that opera has a different timescale and time can stand still. It is a universal language that we can all feel even if we don't understand the words - although today there are surtitles, which provide an immediate ability to understand what's going on - and that it can truly touch your heart."

Having co-presented Nixon in China and Brass Poppies in the Auckland Arts Festival, NZ Opera now looks forward to its new season proper, which features Mozart's The Magic Flute, La Traviata and its first musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as a co-production with Victorian Opera. There's also the one-off Opera in Concert, Verdi's Otello.

Need to know
NZ Opera Open Day
Today, 11am-2pm
107 Neilson St, Onehunga

- TimeOut

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