‘I Reject that Utterly and Totally’: Opera Boss Fires Back
Thomas de Mallet Burgess is a man under siege.
In the last couple of months, New Zealand Opera’s General Director has faced board walk-outs, accusations of financial wastefulness – and, conversely, miserliness – as well as a barrage of criticism from some of the country’s most distinguished arts figures over the company’s artistic direction.
In this exclusive interview, which we publish in two parts, de Mallet Burgess sat down for a frank discussion about what’s gone on at our national opera company.
The first topic broached - that walk-out.
“In many respects, I’m baffled,” admits de Mallet Burgess when quizzed on what caused the simultaneous resignations of board members Witi Ihimaera, Murray Shaw and Rachael Walkinton in May (two new board members were appointed in August). “I don’t think the messages I’ve received from the board members themselves have pointed to a clear path.
“I think overall there is a small group of disgruntled people in the opera community who are choosing not to engage with the company constructively as we delivered change, and that some of the pressure from that small group was applied to those board members.
“It’s important to bear in mind that two of those board members were due to retire at the end of the year. Secondly, that one of those board members was with the company and instrumental in the formulation of the new strategic agenda. Two out of the three were actually on the programming committee.
“So those board members were at the heart of questioning and decision making, insofar as it’s the board’s remit to advise and support.”
But they have certainly been very vocal about their concerns. Ihimaera pointed to a “huge upswelling [sic] of discontent and confusion about the artistic direction of the company.”
“I reject that statement utterly and totally,” de Mallet Burgess baulks.
“I was appointed with a mandate for change. That mandate came from two central facts: the company was in a hard place financially; and the company’s relationship with its principal funders, especially Creative New Zealand, was not in a good place, such that future funding was under threat.”
Making his mark
Eight Songs for a Mad King – Robert Tucker in performance. Photo: Jeff McEwan.
That NZ Opera was in financial strife is well known, as is the fact that in 2018 de Mallet Burgess was brought in to sort it out.
The result was a radical overhaul of NZO’s strategic direction. Some of the grand opera we are used to would be retained (this year’s Marriage of Figaro, for example, and 2020’s ambitious but compromised Semele), but supplementing these would be smaller, site-specific and often challenging productions that presented less of a financial risk.
That led to the astonishing 8 Songs for a Mad King - performed to 100 people at a time in an Auckland square - and Poulenc’s The Human Voice, which was shown around the country in hotel rooms to audiences of just 20.
Meanwhile, Tim Finn’s first opera, Ihitai ’Avei’a – Star Navigator played to three sold-out houses at Manukau’s Vodafone Events Centre, mostly to people who’d never previously engaged with opera.
I’m on record as broadly supporting NZ Opera’s artistic direction under de Mallet Burgess, but these less-played works are not to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, NZO’s strategy has taken opera to new audiences and kept the company financially afloat.
The Human Voice – Amanda Atlas in performance. Photo: Grant Triplow.
It’s a surprise, then, that one of the accusations levelled at NZO is that it has wasted money.
High notes, bank notes
Reports that the organisation has spent frivolously in the last couple of years – a figure of $9 million has been suggested. A look at NZO’s annual report for 2020 shows income of $5,826,150, and $6,325,305 in pre-COVID 2019.
“That’s a good example of the sort of miscommunication that happens,” de Mallet Burgess retorts. “Over three years, the company has moved from deficit to surplus. Only through intervention by the [NZ Opera] Foundation, to the tune of half a million dollars, and a bank loan.
“We’re now firmly in the black. We paid off the loan. We have a surplus, which we can use to support more risk-taking or support a large-scale opera that may or may not deliver on its box office.
“Or in the recent case with the [Marriage of Figaro] performances that were cancelled in Wellington [because of June’s COVID scare], we paid our cast and crew, our orchestra, everybody, even though we lost $250,000 in box office. That was possible because of those reserves.”
In part two next week, Thomas de Mallet Burgess discusses anti-ONZ letters to the government, whether he is difficult to work with, and opera great Simon O’Neill’s accusations of “predatory” behaviour.
Richard Betts is an award-winning arts writer. He has twice done freelance work for NZ Opera.