Thomas de Mallet Burgess: pushing the boundaries of New Zealand opera

When a group of unruly British tourists wreaked havoc on the country in 2019, the New Zealand Opera chief executive Thomas de Mallet Burgess was struck by a flash of inspiration. It was a Shakespearean story that seemed ripe for the stage.

But when NZ Opera announced the Unruly tourists production earlier this year, it encountered controversy and a third of the board resigned in apparent protest against the company’s new artistic direction.

De Mallet Burgess, originally from the United Kingdom, is not discouraged. He has led unconventional productions around the world and says that if the art form is to remain relevant, it must address contemporary social issues – from Trumpism to domestic violence – and some core repertoire works should be discontinued, at least temporarily.

Photo: Provided

He tells Kim Hill that, all is well, the opera will premiere at the Auckland Arts Festival in March next year.

De Mallet Burgess arrived in New Zealand at the same time as the tourists and was in the process of getting to know New Zealand.

“One of the things that first caught my eye was the fact that they were labeled ‘Irish tourists’ and, being from the UK, I knew this particular group of people belonged to the traveling community.

“When this was pointed out, instead of becoming the English tourists, they became the ‘unruly’ tourists. It seemed strange to me and I wondered if it had to do with how New Zealand viewed itself in relation to it. to England. “

This theme of colonization, along with the way the media took hold of the group and encouraged people to take photos and videos of them if they were spotted, was what appealed to Mallet Burgess.

“They themselves, behaving incredibly badly, have also ended up being pursued by the media and the people of New Zealand. There are currents of how media and communication play out in the digital media age. and social. “

He says the term “unruly” used for the group made him think of Hamlet and the lawless resolute.

“There is an epic quality to the story of what happened here. The fact that people come with the ambition to see The Hobbit and end up rampaging across the land.”

The opera won’t be a big blow to the group, he points out, instead it will show how bad behavior from tourists also brought out the worst of the Kiwis, with people filming and harassing them throughout their visit. .

They also brought in a consultant from the traveler community to help run the opera with sensitivity to the group.

He says NZ Opera is going through a difficult time and that new works like this are a way to reinvigorate audiences. The company is now ordering new work at a faster rate than it has ever done before, he says.

“We love our audience that is already invested in opera and we’re putting on large-scale productions of canonical works, concerts and recitals and things that we know they love. But opera has to find new ones. audiences, we need to find ways to tell our own stories rather than always donning an old work in a modern setting.

“The only way we can do that, I think, is to reinvent the art form; either the way it is presented or the work itself that we commission.”

De Mallet Burgess says new generations shouldn’t feel the need to carry the baggage of the past 200 years into the present and should instead seek to create new works.

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About Ethel Nester

Ethel Nester

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