Opera is big. It's sweeping and excessive and lavishly costumed; it takes place on massive stages in immense halls with vast orchestras playing in the pit.

Except, sometimes it's not and sometimes it doesn't. The first opera Thomas de Mallet Burgess produced for Perth's Lost and Found Opera, a rare outing of Poulenc's La voix humaine, was performed to 15 people in a hotel room.

De Mallet Burgess has a thing for staging neglected opera in surprising spaces, the "lost" and the "found" of the company he formed in 2012, and from which he has recently exited to take the role of general director at NZ Opera.

Other productions have included Milhaud's Medee, which was performed in a decommissioned psychiatric asylum, while Bizet's Don Procopio played in a suburban Italian club and wedding venue. The imminent Acteon will take place in a public swimming pool and employ synchronised swimmers.

Advertisement

It's all part of de Mallet Burgess' philosophy of making opera-going an experience.

"There's a question mark about opera, how and in what way the art form might exist in the future or if we should just let it flow into the night," he says. "One thing I'm sure about is that endlessly rehashing the top 10 most popular operas is a sure way for the art form to die."

That will put the fear up people looking forward to seeing another Carmen. The conundrum is that when NZ Opera last year looked outside the sure-fire hits and programmed Janacek's tuneful Katya Kabanova, the company took a bath at the box office. Arts organisations work on margins much too fine to survive many such financial calamities.

"It's not just a challenge for NZ Opera, it's a challenge for every opera company in the world," de Mallet Burgess says. "One of the ideas I have for what we'll call 'the Katya problem'" — a laugh — "is whether it's possible to associate a work that is less performed with a community that already exists."

De Mallet Burgess gives the example of Viktor Ullmann's The Emperor of Atlantis, or The Refusal of Death, a work he produced with Lost and Found. The composer wrote it during World War II, while imprisoned in Theresienstadt concentration camp. Ullmann, a Jew, died in Auschwitz just months after completing his work. De Mallet Burgess staged the opera in a synagogue.

Could such a thing be viable here? De Mallet Burgess believes so.

"Two-thirds of our audience were what I'd call opera people anxious for a different experience, and one-third were people from the synagogue who were interested that this was happening in a place that was meaningful to them.

"That made me think that the one-third could make the difference between a production being possible financially and not. I'm wondering if there are communities here [in New Zealand] where I could look at a similar project but on a larger scale."

Scale is relative; de Mallet Burgess is talking about an audience of maybe 250 people. For comparison, NZ Opera will expect to go close to selling out its five-show Auckland run of La boheme in the 2000-seat Aotea Centre, before taking the whole thing south for another five performances in Wellington.

It's impossible for an organisation of NZ Opera's size to sustain itself with a one-off performance to a fraction of the audience. De Mallet Burgess is therefore looking to partner other companies to help spread the costs of less bankable productions.

Whereas 250 people is not many by NZ Opera standards, it would make a difference to smaller, nimbler organisations like, say, Unstuck Opera, which staged its radical reimagining of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas across three floors of Titirangi's Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery and usually plays to 100 or so people.

If de Mallet Burgess' vision is exciting for music lovers who can't stomach yet another Carmen, he acknowledges that the audience for Ullmann's politically charged "degenerate music" — as the Nazis labelled it — is niche and insists there will still be blockbusters.

"I'm not proposing to throw the baby out with the bathwater but to look at other babies we might bring on board. Sometimes [NZO's operas] will have a size and scope that is in and of itself exciting; and at other times the experience may be more stripped back, more disorientating, in a way that invites the audience to piece it all together.

"There is no formula but the mistake is in getting stuck. It comes back to what we are doing and why and, for me, right at the heart, has to be the experience for the audience."