Story: Opera and musical theatre

Page 4. The survival of opera

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Professional city companies

In the 1980s Mercury Opera became established in Auckland, as did other professional opera companies elsewhere in New Zealand.

Despite being denied Arts Council funding for several years Wellington City Opera staged enterprising productions.

Canterbury Opera began in Christchurch in 1985 and survived until 2006, usually producing two operas a year. Some it staged in partnership with Wellington City Opera.

Dunedin’s company, founded in 1956, became semi-professional in 1985 and mounted creditable productions during the 1990s, but its offerings became sporadic after the Arts Council’s support was withdrawn.

Funding fairness

When the National Opera of New Zealand failed in 1982 the Arts Council’s money was given to Auckland’s Mercury Theatre – which had joined forces with the dying opera company. Mercury Opera productions were confined to Auckland, provoking anger from opera-lovers in the rest of the country.

Arts festivals and opera

From 1991 Wellington City Opera staged three operas every year, reduced to two in alternate years when the biennial New Zealand International Festival of the Arts presented a major production. The festival’s first triumph, in 1990, was Wagner’s Die meistersinger von Nürnberg, starring New Zealand’s great Wagner singer Donald McIntyre. It was followed by Salome (Strauss), Katya Kabanová (Janáček), Fidelio (Beethoven), Simon Boccanegra (Verdi), Der Rosenkavalier (Strauss) and a semi-staged version of Wagner’s Parsifal. However, from 2000 the festival’s commitment to classical music and opera declined markedly.

The limited amount of professional staged opera meant that concert performances – often by symphonic choirs in the main cities – became important, though not as much as in parts of Europe. In 2005 the Auckland Festival, with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO), gave a semi-staged performance of The death of Klinghoffer by John Adams.

The Auckland Philharmonia performed concert versions of opera annually from 2006, notably Salome and Elektra (Strauss) and Wagner’s Das Rheingold. In the 2000s the NZSO performed Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in the main cities.

Undressing opera

Wellington’s Pocket Opera set out to convert people to opera by staging some startling shows. One in 1995, Opera undressed, ended with the soloists stripping to their underwear.

Small opera groups

The lack of real seasons of opera repeatedly inspired small groups to arise and tackle operas, both familiar and obscure.

  • In the 1990s in Wellington, and occasionally with Waikato Opera, Jeremy Commons produced forgotten 19th-century salon operas that his researches in Italy and France had unearthed.
  • Dedicated to touring opera around schools nationwide, Auckland-based Class Act Opera survived for many years from 1991.
  • From the mid-1980s a small Christchurch enterprise, Academy Opera, presented a series of mainly baroque operas. After the organisers moved to Wellington, two rare Puccini operas and Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito were seen.

Changing fortunes

Opera groups mounted creditable productions in several provincial cities – Whanganui, Hamilton and Gisborne, as well as in Hawke’s Bay. Such regional opera was vital to nurturing singing and production skills for fully professional companies in the large cities. However, during the early 2000s these companies as well as those in Christchurch and Dunedin were allowed to decline or disappear through lack of state support and, typically, reliance on the energies and vision of one person.

NBR New Zealand Opera

In 1991 Mercury Opera merged with Auckland Metropolitan Opera to become Auckland Opera. The company usually staged two productions a year. The most impressive was Wagner’s The flying Dutchman in 1992. In 2000, faced with financial difficulties, it merged with the Wellington opera company to become NBR New Zealand Opera. This merger, which later included Canterbury Opera, seemed to be a move back to a national touring model, counter to international trends.

Though New Zealand Opera productions have been more opulent and polished than the work of earlier companies, and there have been some admirable ventures such as Boris Godunov, Jenůfa and Xerxes, some are concerned that more New Zealand singers are not used.

There are signs that grassroots audience support for opera is slipping. Furthermore the range of productions nationally has fallen from eight or ten a year in the 1990s to a mere two or three in 2013.

How to cite this page:

Lindis Taylor, 'Opera and musical theatre - The survival of opera', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 January 2022)

Story by Lindis Taylor, published 22 Oct 2014