• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Opera returns to Christchurch

The merger between New Zealand Opera and Southern Opera marks a promise kept to one of its leading proponents, Canterbury arts advocate Christopher Doig.

New Zealand Opera production of Jenufa
Anne Sophie Duprels and Tom Randle in the 2008 New Zealand Opera production of Jenůfa that impressed Christopher Doig. Photo/Dean Purcell/NZ Herald

When New Zealand Opera opens Don Giovanni as a centrepiece of the Christchurch Arts Festival this month, we’ll have a national opera company based in three cities. Billed as “the ultimate seduction”, Mozart’s work will be the first fully staged opera in Christchurch since 2009. And, paradoxically, the disastrous earthquakes in the city may have helped this story reach its satisfying ending.

Opera is a world of revolution, intrigue and passionate outpourings under the chandeliers. This is true not only on stage but also behind the scenes, where artistic, administrative and funding battles about this most expensive of art forms often assume operatic proportions. Was this merger of Southern Opera with New Zealand Opera a dramatic struggle between local heroes and national villains?

Tenor Christopher Doig was a key player. Not long after a financially bruised Canterbury Opera closed its doors in 2006, Doig, a passionate advocate for both Canterbury and opera, persuaded funders and patrons a new company was needed.

New Zealand Opera Kate Burtt
NZ Opera's Kate Burtt. Photo/Neil Price

“Chris was very much the driver of Southern Opera,” says Kate Burtt, former chair of Canterbury Opera, a director of that new company at Doig’s invitation and now on the board of New Zealand Opera. “He was charismatic, a big thinker, an optimist. You didn’t say ‘no’ to Chris. He would say, ‘This is what’s going to happen.’”

What happened from 2008 was a “lean machine”, a Christchurch-based opera company with the resources for just one full-scale production a year.

For two years, Doig’s vision was realised, with well-received productions of Il Trovatore and The Magic Flute. Then the first major Christchurch earthquake shook the city on September 4, 2010, and that year’s opera, Tosca, was postponed until 2011. After the February 2011 earthquake, it was abandoned.

Meanwhile, Doig’s ambitions for opera in Christchurch were developing. In 2008, he was highly impressed by New Zealand Opera’s production of Jenůfa, an opera he knew well as a singer. He saw that New Zealand Opera was fulfilling many of his dreams for opera in this country, with high artistic and production standards and opportunities for established and emerging New Zealand singers.

Aidan Lang New Zealand Opera
The company's Aidan Lang. Photo/Neville Marriner

Enter Aidan Lang, general director of New Zealand Opera since 2006, smiling, genial and not at all villainous. Soon after enjoying Jenůfa, Doig began discussions with Lang about how to take opera in Christchurch to the next level. “The merger,” says Lang, “was born out of a real desire to give Christchurch great opera.”

Far from an operatic stoush, the discussions between Lang and Doig resembled the kind of harmonious and forward-looking duet we often hear at the end of an operatic act. The two men, both deeply knowledgeable about their art form, had very different personalities: Doig a passionate and determined mover and shaker; Lang a skilled negotiator. “I’m a Libran,” jokes Lang. “I see other points of view.”

Lang is clear the merger is not a response to the Christchurch earthquakes. Discussions were well under way by then, and seismic events merely delayed implementation. “But the earthquakes also meant we needed to nourish the people of Christ­church with great art,” he says, “and they removed any silly parochial objections.”

Sadly, Doig’s death from cancer in October 2011 also delayed plans. A week before his death, he appeared at a major fundraising concert for Christchurch arts organisations by Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo. “That was Chris’s huge effort,” says Burtt. “We had an audience of eight and a half thousand, the biggest since the February quake; we were three feet off the ground.”

“A very frail Chris spoke passionately at that concert,” says Lang, “about why he endorsed the merger. He persuaded people there was a real commitment from New Zealand Opera.”

The result is an operatic model “unique in the world”, according to Lang. “We’re mounting a new production, using a local chorus and orchestra. Christchurch is now one-third of the company, with a dedicated local office. We are Christchurch’s opera company.”

New Zealand Opera’s plans for Christ­church include a community engagement programme, illustrated by their arts festival production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde for family audiences.

Lang is adamant the role of an arts company is not about “asking people to come and worship at the altar of art. Telling stories through singing is a basic human activity; the so-called elitism of opera is nonsense. Christchurch has been a catalyst for us to remember our core values.”

Post-earthquakes, Christchurch venues have been a major issue. Lang had hoped to open Don Giovanni in the Isaac Theatre Royal, but its restoration is not complete. “Still, luck was on our side,” he says. “A booking at the Arena fell away and we got in. It’s a big space, so we’ve made an imposing production.”

The cast for Don Giovanni, “one of the truly great operas”, would have delighted Doig, suggests Lang. It includes many New Zealanders, with two of our best-known international stars, baritone Jonathan Lemalu and soprano Anna Leese, alongside English baritone Mark Stone in the title role.

After eight years with the opera company, Lang will leave the New Zealand stage next year for a similar role with ­Seattle Opera. He thought initially the New Zealand Opera was “a five-year job”, but at that stage “the job wasn’t done. Christ­church was just bubbling – and I don’t want to be mawkish but I’d promised Chris, ‘I will make this work for you.’”

Lang’s other achievements include the establishment of a full technical facility in Auckland, enabling the company to make its own productions, like Don Giovanni, from scratch, and to collaborate fully with many overseas companies.

“We can exemplify our view of the art form through our own productions; we’re also a good partner. We’re now a ‘proper’ opera company.”

DON GIOVANNI, CBS Canterbury Arena, August 21-24, and NOYE’S FLUDDE, Christchurch Transitional Cathedral, September 21. Both New Zealand Opera in association with the Christchurch Arts Festival, August 22-September 22.