The forthcoming production of Eight Songs for a Mad King from NZ Opera appearing in the Auckland Arts Festival is an astonishingly bold choice. I spoke to General Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess to get some insight into this ‘opera out of the box’.
Penned by the enfant terrible of British composers, Peter Maxwell Davies, this piece from 1966 explores the decline of Mad King George III. Based on the King’s actual words and explored over 30 minutes it is scored for a baritone with an extraordinary command of extended vocals - from profound bass to piercing falsetto. Set for a chamber ensemble, players surround and create the framework for the monodrama.
So I ask - why this piece and why now?
“The idea has been brewing for some time and it’s taken some years for all the elements to come together. I was struck by the realisation that there is a real gap between society’s attitude towards mental illness which has improved markedly in the last sixty years and yet, we will cross the road to avoid personal contact perceived as 'not normal'. It is this tension between the embracing and yet the pulling away that interested me, and I sought out a piece that would express this tension. In modern times levels of anxiety have become pronounced, the overwhelm of information, the effect of social media. I think this piece talks to the challenges of dealing with these increasing stresses.”
NZ Opera are making this piece more relevant for modern audiences by updating the British Monarch to a boardroom CEO, less madness and more humanity: “audiences will witness the humiliation of a figure of power breaking apart”.
The staging of the piece quite literally takes opera outside the box by presenting the show in two halves. In the first half the audience is up close and personal with the actor and instrumentalists, the second half they are positioned outside the venue wearing headphones and viewing through windows.
Talk us through “Opera outside the Box” and how that takes shape.
“A neurologist explained to me that we absorb most of our information visually, millions and millions of visual pieces of information are absorbed this way. But our auditory sense is more limited, I was interested to explore what happens when we put the audience into this mode, removing some of the visual and heightening the auditory through headphones, and what the effect would be.”
Would you say this is more like performance art then?
“Absolutely, it’s a ’happenstance’. In fact in Wellington we found that the street actually became part of the performance. The venue is in a busy part of town and a slew of emergency vehicles tore past during the performance, adding to the sounds in the performance."
Will the show morph when it travels to Auckland for the Auckland Arts Festival?
“Yes we have an interesting venue in Auckland for the piece, it will be staged in the Ellen Melville Centre right in the centre of town. And interesting in that one of the themes in the background of Eight Songs is the decline of the male patriarchy so there are resonances with the venue. The performances of the work in the three different centres - Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch will be site-specific which creates a different resonance too.”
Ellen Melville Centre was opened in the 1960s to commemorate the work of pioneer women in the development of Auckland. Not only is there an inside/outside element to the staging but the piece will be ‘broadcast’ outside the Melville Centre on speakers - “will the street audience be engaged, what will their response be?”
And how about the crucial central actor in the piece, how is Robert Tucker managing this extreme score?
“Right from the beginning the fantastic thing is that Robert and I had a similar viewpoint of the piece. In the past stagings of Eight Songs focussed on the madness of the King but we wanted to bring out the humanity, to make him more relatable. Robert is doing incredibly well with this role, especially as he performs it twice in one night. He certainly is stretched to his extremes but the reviews have been very positive.”
Not a conventional musical score, Maxwell Davies uses unusual notation even laying part of the score over a bird-cage design.
Have the production team and conductor been part of the challenging score reading and interpretation?
“It has been a real collaboration with extensive work between conductor Hamish McKeich and Tucker and I added in narrative layers. The players [from the group Stroma] were ’in the game’ right from the first rehearsal. The flautist has an interchange with the King at one point which becomes a comment on sexual advances in the workplace. There has been an amazing engagement from the players in the whole piece.”
So would you say this is breaking open the idea of Opera in New Zealand?
“Absolutely. But this is highly questionable in NZ with the economics here - the audience sizes, the amount you can charge for tickets, the financial support available to the company. But we need to create a new audience, our audience is older and we simply need to get new and younger audiences engaging with opera.”
EIGHT SONGS FOR A MAD KING
NZ OPERA and the AUCKLAND ARTS FESTIVAL 2020