With New Zealand Opera's Katya Kabanova just a week away, general director Stuart Maunder considers 2017 a bumper year for the company.

"I'm most proud of the fact that we're about to stage one of the great operas of the 20th century and we're playing to a larger paying audience than ever before," he says.

Ruffling sensibilities with February's Mikado was a storm in a Japanese teacup to the ebullient Australian, and June's Carmen revealed the strength of the NZ Opera team.

"We took one of the great works of the operatic stage and reinvented it for those who were jaded that we were doing it at all," says Maunder.


Now he's turning his attention to next year. NZ Opera's 2018 season can best be described as a three-course Italian meal, after a March aperitif in the form of Leonard Bernstein's Candide, presented with Auckland Arts Festival to celebrate the US composer's centenary.

For Maunder, this musical represents the perfect opportunity to transform the Auckland Town Hall into Bernstein's best of all possible worlds. Kiwi Amelia Berry has been cast as the coloratura, Cunegonde. "We're living up to our name, New Zealand Opera, by choosing repertoire that brings home as many of our young operatic achievers as possible," says Maunder.

Simon Phillips' 2001 Sydney production of Donizetti's Elixir of Love will be a heaven-sent vehicle for Sole Mio tenor Pene Pati, now based in San Francisco. Pati will play Nemorino, the poor young man in love with the beautiful and wealthy Adino, who's portrayed by his wife, Amina Edris.

Expect lots of sheep, Maunder warns, as Phillips takes the action to the Australian back country, with a sheep-shearer hero.

Maunder ardently defends September's La Boheme, an opera he claims will remind audiences of what it's like to be alive and in love, whether it's the first or the 50th time they've seen it. "Germaine Greer used to say that the reason we cry in Boheme is because we can identify with its theme of innocence lost and think back to the end of our own bohemian days."

Significantly, the lovers are played by Marlena Devoe and Thomas Atkins, heading an all-Kiwi cast, apart from Australian baritone Nicholas Lester as Marcello.

The company's mid-year Aida, with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, is the ideal concert opera with the perfect conductor in Giordano Bellincampi. "I adored working with Giordano on this year's Manon Lescaut and he is an absolute master in this field. The care and joy be brings are wonderful."

Opera may be an expensive art, Maunder agrees, but says to think of all the employment it provides and joy it brings. "When you've put the 123rd member of the Carmen chorus into wig and costume, you realise just how many people are touched by this company."

Important, too, are NZ Opera's outreach activities, including its small-scale, hip productions of classic operas toured around schools. He's chuffed that almost 9000 youngsters saw this year's Don Pasquale and now realise opera's not a dirty word.