NZ Opera signals a bold new direction with its latest production, Peter Maxwell Davies's confrontational Eight Songs for a Mad King, writes Richard Betts

When Thomas de Mallet Burgess became executive director of NZ Opera in 2018, he promised a new direction for the company but this?

A mid-20th century monodrama based on the ravings of a lunatic, written when its composer, Peter Maxwell Davies, was the most terrible of enfants? Carmen it ain't. But how exciting it is that this March Eight Songs for a Mad King gets seasons in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch; we don't hear enough of this sort of thing. Robert Tucker, the singer playing the titular George III, agrees.

"It's part of our musical history, that post-World War II period when everyone was experimenting and pushing the envelope," says Tucker. "I think what it portrays and how [Maxwell Davies] uses the music to show the madness of this person works very well and the subject is relevant too."

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The subject is someone who had everything and lost it all, relinquishing his grip on reality and his kingdom. Opera-goers with an historical bent will know it's a true story. No one's quite sure what caused his decline, but the last years of King George III's (1738-1820) life were beset by mental illness, to the extent that his son ruled as regent from 1810 to 1820, before becoming George IV on his father's death.

Robert Tucker in rehearsals for Eight Songs for a Mad King, possibly one of NZ Opera's boldest productions. Photo / Garry Brandon
Robert Tucker in rehearsals for Eight Songs for a Mad King, possibly one of NZ Opera's boldest productions. Photo / Garry Brandon

NZ Opera's production is set in a 21st century boardroom rather than a Regency palace, with the lead – in fact only – character not a monarch but a CEO pushed to bursting point. More unusual than a modernised setting is that the half-hour piece is being performed in unexpected places: Christchurch's central library, Wellington's RNZB Dance Centre and, in Auckland, the Ellen Melville Centre.

Each concert will see the work performed twice, with the audience of just 100 split in two: one group inside and another outside wearing headphones, with the groups swapping seats at interval.

NZ Opera is trying to discomfit its audience on purpose.

"We hope to create intensity," says designer Robin Rawstorne, responsible for the logistics of making the show visible and compelling from both viewpoints. "There's a comfort in going to a nice theatre with plush seats and a gorgeous foyer that you won't get in this production. Pushing people slightly out on a limb creates more of a buzz and probably has a better result in terms of the themes of the piece. It's not an easy experience but it will be memorable."

There's real jeopardy to this approach. NZ Opera could literally lose 50 percent of its audience half way through.

"I don't feel concerned about that," says Rawstorne. "It's bold, but we're accepting the intelligence of the audience to have chosen this piece and then to come and experience it the way we've presented it. I'm convinced that [seeing it twice] will be beneficial."

Rawstorne is right. The musical language makes a recording of Eight Songs tricky to untangle, but the work snaps into focus when you watch it performed. Seeing it twice in quick succession will allow the subtleties to unfold.

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If the work is challenging for an audience, it's no easier for musicians. Tucker says it's the most physically and emotionally difficult role he's sung, and he's done special vocal exercises in preparation. Ultimately, though, he goes back to the basics of practising any opera.

"I researched the piece and the composer and subject, but with any piece of music I start with the words," he says. "Learning the music isn't that different to other pieces, it's just the end result."

The end result is remarkable. With a libretto based on words by mad King George himself, the singer utters and mutters and splutters 30 minutes (times two) of compelling gibberish.

"I'm trying not to make it just gibberish, I'm trying to find meaning in the text," says Tucker. "The words literally came from a madman but I'm trying to understand what he was talking about when he spoke these words."

Tucker says it's helpful not to think of Eight Songs as a musical work at all.

"Don't go expecting to see an opera, go expecting to see a piece of theatre. Some people go to the opera for the tunes; that's not going to happen here."

Yet there are tunes and tenderness, too, particularly in the feather-light instrumentation but also snippets of the king's music.

"There are moments of beauty," says Tucker. "I'm doing my best to find those moments and bring them out."

Lowdown
What: NZ Opera - Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies
Where & When: NZ Festival, Wellington, March 2, 4, 5, 7; Auckland Arts Festival, March 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19; Christchurch, March 25, 26, 28, 29