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Lowdown on Clash of Culture

NZ Opera's production of Barber of Serville, 2019.
Photo: Rawhitiroa Photography/Facebook.
Drama for NZ Opera - and it's not on the stage. Your arts news bulletin looks behind the bust-up, hears from the latest award winners and new creative offerings.


Worldwide, opera as an artform faces many challenges. 

It is hellishly expensive to produce, and its audience is, as with classical music and live theatre, shrinking. It just does not have the unassailable status it once had.

Opera companies are in a difficult position, desperately in need of remaining relevant to younger audiences, but often beholden to a dwindling older audience that is only interested in the shortlist of usual European suspects composed between 1780 and 1900.

It is a situation massively acerbated in a country like Aotearoa at the end of the world with a tiny audience. Smaller regional companies aside, New Zealand Opera is the national flagship and has found itself in the spotlight this week.

How the hell do you sustain a professional company mounting a gobsmackingly expensive, labour-intensive artform in a country that has a smaller population than London or New York and a longstanding allergy to high culture?

For years, NZ Opera has provided a menu touristique of Verdi, Bizet, and Puccini – magnificent productions, to be sure – but such eurocentrism is a liability when there is a whole canon of New World, modern and contemporary operas it has never touched.

There is also the issue that we have our own magnificent composers and librettists, our own dramatic stories to tell.

This is the direction NZ Opera’s General Manager, internationally renowned Thomas de Mallet Burgess, has been taking the organisation since he joined it in 2018, with edgier and more contemporary productions.

NZ Opera's upcoming production The Marriage of Figaro. Photo: NZ Opera.

On the other hand, that risks alienating the backbone of Aotearoa’s audience for Opera who want the greatest hits. This runs the risk of looking like having a national opera simply because that was one of the ways developed countries advertised their civilised status in the last century.

In the last month, three members of NZ Opera’s Board - Witi Ihimaera, Murray Shaw and Rachael Walkinton –have stepped down. Reports on RNZ citing the artistic direction that Burgess was taking the company as the reason, something later refuted by Ihimaera. The organisation also lost two musical directors in one year.

Former NZ Opera Board member Witi Ihimaera. Photo:Maja Moritz.

One of the examples of this new direction cited in the media is a proposed Opera based on the family of so-called “unruly tourists” from the UK who scandalised the country in the summer of 2019. 

Criticisms of the - yet theoretical - production ranged from it being in poor taste to being tantamount to bullying – which is fairly bold for something that hasn’t been composed and written yet and shows a lack of faith in the nation’s talent and audiences. 

After all, if Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s Jerry Springer: The Opera (ok, so it’s a musical, bear with me) can stay a smash hit for twenty years, audiences can probably cope with anything. 

Personally, I’d love something more experimental once in a while, some Adams or Glass, perhaps. I’d settle for something comfortably unthreatening like Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress with its charming libretto by Auden and Kallman. I, too, crave a broader range.

The situation says less about the current state of opera than it does about a clearly dysfunctional organisation – an organisation that in 2019 received almost $2.7 million in grants from Creative New Zealand, and a little over $1.2 million from Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch city councils.

Clearly, it’s a bind, and both sides have their valid points. 

Clearly, there needs to be some sort of compromise. Maybe lessons could be learned from the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Perhaps there needs to be a pooling of resources in collaboration with Australian companies. Should NZ Opera strive for a more pared-down, minimalist style?

If you want edgy sex and violence while staying in relatively familiar territory, why not a spicy production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera?

- Written by Andrew Wood.

Walking the walk

While boards colliding has become a regular theme in Lowdowns this year, there are others working hard to take steps in the right direction.

As reported here on The Big Idea - measures have been made to ensure more diverse stories from underrepresented areas of writing are recognised in the Copyright Licensing NZ/NZ Society of Authors Research Grants that are currently open. 

 Chief Executive Paula Browning insists that CLNZ isn’t just talking the talk when it comes to culture and diversity - they’ve undertaken a review at both governance and an operational level to look at what they need to do to be more reflective of the creatives they serve.

CLNZ Chief Executive Paula Browning. Photo: Supplied.

To achieve this, Browning says recruitment for both CLNZ Board and staff positions are explicit about being welcoming and open to diverse applicants. The staff has commenced training with the Superdiversity Institute on Diversity and Unconscious Bias and, later this year, will revise the communications plan to ensure services and language speak to diverse audiences.

She tells The Lowdown “I don’t think you bring about authentic change by just turning up to a one hour session and going, ‘oh yeah, I know it all now’. 

“It’s about having eyes and ears open and awareness of the world that you are in, differences in approach, understanding and experience. We’re looking forward to bringing both the board and the team further along in our pathway of being more representative of the creative community in NZ.”

Silver linings

It’s been a tough time for the good people of Canterbury, with the flooding levels posing challenges and heartbreak for so many this week.

It came with a sense of deja vu for Little River Gallery near Akaroa - after rising water levels caused damage back in 2014. New owners Kim and Aslan Wright-Stow bought the family business from gallery founders Ange and Stu Wright-Stow in April 

Kim explains to The Lowdown “We have a stockpile of sandbags outside at the ready and the drill is to raise everything off the ground, move art to secure places - which we did. We had a massive amount of help from locals who just turned up and started sandbagging entry points, along with members of our staffing team who were there getting amongst it all. Can't thank the Little River community enough, everyone just swooped in and got it done.

And it all paid off. Fearing for the worst after being evacuated on Monday with water lapping at the gallery doors, Kim says there was “a colossal sense of relief” when they could return on Tuesday to see the sandbags had done the job. We send all our aroha to those who haven’t been so fortunate this week.

Snap happy

Bodie Friend's award-winning photo of 'Nana Pat'.

A photographer without a camera doesn’t sound like the recipe for success, but that’s the case with the inaugural winner of the Kiingi Tūheitia Portraiture award.

Run in conjunction with the Kiingitanga and the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata, Bodie Friend’s charming and engaging photo of ‘Nana Pat’, his great-uncle Pat Kingi was crowned the standout in a field of 128 entrants, with the top 50 on display in Wellington before it tours nationally.

Sports fans will be unwittingly familiar with Friend’s work - his photos are all over the Warriors NRL team’s social media accounts, where he helms the comms team. But Friend tells The Lowdown he never thought of himself as an artist - until now.

“Stunned, truly. I’ve always leaned towards all things creative. Mum enrolled me into a few different types of art classes when I was young, including tie dye...having your work in an exhibition for the first time and being awarded for your photography is a whole different kettle of fish. It’s quite confronting, in a good way; it’s a significant confidence booster which has caught me off guard. I now see I must step into that calling and explore it further.”

With an outstanding judging panel of Lisa Reihana, Sir Derek Lardelli and Kura Te Waru Rewiri, the award has sparked a huge amount of publicity across all media platforms, a wonderful start to fulfilling its concept as a platform to help emerging Māori artists. As RNZ puts it “we need those stories”.

Bodie Friend doing the media rounds. Photo: Rawhitiroa Photography/Facebook.

When asked about photography’s place in toi Māori, Friend tells TBI “it's really a matter of storytelling and use of all and any creative methods, traditional or otherwise. The most important aspect in all of this is for Māori to tell Māori stories, in whatever way that looks like. Art draws inspiration from the world around us so I feel with any creative expression there’s no restrictions on what methods are used.”

First port of call with the $20,000 prize - buying his own camera and investing in equipment to further his craft.

Speaking of successful snappers, Veronica McLaughlin has claimed the Aotearoa Music Photography Award for 2021, celebrated for the below captured moment as musician Delaney Davidson performed at The Wine Cellar, post-Lockdown last year.

Jawsome accolade

With the Doc Edge Film Festival in full swing from today - there’s already a winner to look out for.

Wednesday night saw an Oscar-qualifying awards night - with Valerie Taylor: Playing with Sharks the big local success story ahead of its New Zealand premiere. The tale of the fearless marine conservationist collected Best NZ Feature and filmmaker Sally Aitken won Best NZ Director for her efforts.   

No theatre, no heart

Creatives rely on venues to showcase their talents and bring communities together through artistic venture. To lose that opportunity would lead to ”a town without a heart.”

That’s the confronting statement and reality for the people of Gore, with Otago Daily Times reporting the SBS St James theatre is facing closure unless it can convince its District councillors to intervene.

The Gore and Districts St James Trust chairman Craig MacIntyre is asking for support to cover the $516,000 shortfall (which could be lowered to $137,000 if other funding applications come through) to complete work on the building, which includes seismic strengthening, installing a lift, providing wheelchair seating and accessible toilets, re-roofing the small cinema and redecoration of the foyer.

Gore's SBS St James Theatre is under threat.

The news is better in the capital, with Wellington City Council budgeting $5.2 million for the retrofitting of a new venue as part of the Te Whaea performing arts centre in Newtown. 

With small to mid-range venues lacking in Wellington, the new offering will seat up to 1000 people and is expected to open by 2023.

A small matter of creativity focuses on handmade creativity. Photo: Supplied.

There’s a new website offering, aimed at unleashing your inner creativity. 

Crafters and those whose skills are either untapped or have laid dormant will be drawn to of small matters, run by Sacha McNeil of TV news reading fame. Just like her renowned father Bob, McNeil is a natural storyteller, intrigued in what makes people tick, and tells The Lowdown she finds those stories often come out through creativity. 

“I've always loved the 'handmade' and the resourceful cleverness that comes with it. It seems timely, living in an age when people navigate disruption daily, that there is an urge to counter that by finding a slower, more simple tempo of life while staying stimulated. Even if only for small moments. I wanted to create a space for us to appreciate the skill and pleasure of making by hand, to hear, share and learn from people who do so.”

It leans heavily on the practical as well. Rather than just profiles on creative types, stories are backed up with how-to’s - be it guiding you through stitching 101 or caramel slice recipes.

of small matters founder Sacha McNeil deep in creative conversation with celebrity chef and casual crafter Al Brown. Photo: Supplied.

“I've been surprised how many people have said they haven't picked up their knitting needles, baked, or made something by hand for years and have been inspired to do so after having a look at the site,” remarks McNeil. 

“I reckon appreciating the skill and pleasure of making by hand shouldn't be a luxury, nor is it considered so in many cultures. It's all about finding a small window of time to give a small project a go.”

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

3 Jun 2021

The Big Idea Editor