Festival Opera director Anna Pierard believes access to the arts is crucial. She talks to Mark Story ahead of next month's staging of Madame Butterfly.

How would you sum up Madame Butterfly?
Often, people complain about opera plots - they don't make sense, too complicated, too unlikely. In the case of Madame Butterfly, I think there is a deep truth to the story.
One can easily imagine a young girl, without life experience, attaching her hopes for a better life to an exciting, powerful foreign man. In a uniform, no less.
Butterfly doesn't just become weak at the knees, she is totally consumed by the dream. The music always elevates the story - makes it resonate. I think this is more true of Madame Butterfly than of any other opera I know. The stunning music motifs just leave the audience feeling desperate with pain on behalf of Cio Cio San, reminding us that we're all cut from the same cloth. In this way, Madame Butterfly changes people forever.

What do you expect the audience make up will be?
We work hard with the Prima Volta Charitable Trust and local support organisations to ensure that many more young people are attending the opera. Teenagers - the word itself evokes drama - will make up half the audience of the finale in the season, and really we are very proud of the young developing local audience. We have some wonderful supporters and I'm pleased to say that the audience is really starting to reflect the diversity of the people onstage, which is exciting.

How do you price tickets for a show like this?
It's my belief that as we age, our understanding of what is truly important in life is more refined; we know that quality time, cultural experiences, opportunities to understand our place in the world and the simple pleasures are the key to life satisfaction. Festival Opera prices tickets, as for all our events, in the hope that adults can subsidise those who have really limited access to the arts. That said, at $85 for the highest pricing, I cannot tell you how many foreigners have expressed shock at how cheaply we are able to offer tickets when staging opera is so expensive. (Our budget sits at about $350,000 each year).
We stage opera because access to the art form is important. We see this every day through our relationship with Project Prima Volta and our funders and supporters, who rally together, upwards of 200 people, to make this happen. Producing opera is a marvellous way to bring all type of people together and to make our community strong and vibrant.

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What are your expected highlights?
For me, and for Sarah, my co-founder, we just spend the premiere in tears, every year. And it's because of the enormous power these teenagers have over us. We watch them unfurl, nervous and guarded, and then see them develop into stunning, respectful, whole performers and people. It's a tremendous gift to us.

Of all that goes into a performance like this, what's the toughest obstacle to getting it over the line?
The toughest obstacle for me personally, is as it is for so many, balancing family life and work and the cost of my commitment. We are always proud of the quality that we can achieve with the resources we have (Average cost of staging just one performance of a new opera production at the Metropolitan Opera is NZ 1.5 million).
However, the expense of the undertaking is enormous, this is the biggest challenge, and where we continue to need the most support - everything else is surprisingly manageable when you have an amazing team.

* Growing Opera Stars is an opportunity to experience the relationship between Project Prima Volta students and their heroes from the Madame Butterfly cast. They'll be performing in MTG Century Theatre on Saturday, January 20 at 7.30pm. See ticketek.co.nz.