Jack Tame: Opera Drama Underscores Opera's Problems

Author
Newstalk ZB,
Publish Date
Sat, 29 May 2021, 9:52AM
The tourist family accused of bad behaviour leaving the Hamilton District Court in 2018. (Photo / Christine Cornege)
The tourist family accused of bad behaviour leaving the Hamilton District Court in 2018. (Photo / Christine Cornege)

Jack Tame: Opera Drama Underscores Opera's Problems

Author
Newstalk ZB,
Publish Date
Sat, 29 May 2021, 9:52AM

When was the last time you went to the opera?

No, here’s a better trivia question: what two shows are being staged by New Zealand Opera this year? Can you tell me? I’ll give you a hint. One of them’s among the best-known operas of all time. The other is the name of a character from The Matrix. 

Tough? Hmm. The answer is The Marriage of Figaro and (M)orpheus.  If you didn’t get it, don’t beat yourself up. I didn’t either. And I’m gonna hazard a guess and suggest... most of us don’t know what operas are being shown by New Zealand Opera this year, just as most of us didn’t know what operas were being shown by New Zealand Opera last year, or the year before, or the year before that.  

This is the whole reason the head of New Zealand Opera is taking some risks. This is the whole reason he’s decided to shake things up and try to bring in some new audiences. This is the whole reason New Zealand Opera has commissioned a work on the tragi-comedy that was the Unruly Tourists. 

Now.. I have to admit to a conflict of interest. It just so happens that one of the writers of Unruly Tourists the Opera is one of my oldest and dearest friends. I’ve known about the project for ages. And the very first time he told me about it, I lit up.

‘Out. Standing.’ I said. That is a piece of commissioning genius. Forget stuffy 17th and 18th Century pieces in foreign languages, I want something fresh! 

And I should say... I’m probably a good gauge of a fairweather opera fan. I’ve attended and enjoyed various operas at various venues. I watched Wagner’s Ring Cycle performed by some of the best in the World at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. I loved it! And I don’t want to be a dick, but I’d gently suggest that simply knowing who Wagner is and being remotely familiar with the Ring Cycle probably puts me in a minority of New Zealanders.  

And yet... for all that. I haven’t been to see a New Zealand Opera production in yeeeears. For whatever reason, it just hasn’t been a priority in my life. 

Apparently, getting more of us to the opera is not a huge priority for a fair whack of the the New Zealand Opera Board, who’ve resigned in protest of the Unruly Tourists opera and New Zealand Opera’s new direction. Except that - of course - the resignations have only underscored the director’s point. 

Get this: one of the opera crowd quoted in news stories moaning about the Unruly Tourist opera said teasing the tourists was “middle-class snobbery.’

Middle-Class Snobbery. If he’s concerned about middle-class snobbery just wait until he hears about... OPERA: that art form so  famously accessible and popular amoungst the lower-classes. Middle-class snobbery?! The temerity! Give me a break.  

NZ Opera receives grants from Creative New Zealand and various councils worth millions of dollars a year. One of the complaints from the old opera crowd is that the new direction will be a waste of taxpayer money. I would have thought producing art that very few people see, for an small section of generally elite and very wealthy New Zealanders, was a much more egregious use of taxpayer dollars than trying something new. 

Nowhere have I seen a suggestion that New Zealand Opera will never again stage the classics. These resignations have been submitted before anyone has even seen the show! And what is the purpose of art but to reflect our society? To tickle us, and challenge us?  

The resignations from New Zealand Opera have only served to prove how out-of-touch the organisation is. I bet the director is rubbing his hands with glee and crying “Good Riddance” in his richest baritone. There has already been more hype and interest in the Unruly Tourists than anything New Zealand Opera has done in years. That has to be a good thing.