Image by: Grant Taylor (photographer)

Interview: Thomas de Mallet Burgess talks about Opera in the Year of Covid

Clare Martin

Clare Martin from Classical Chromatics talks to Thomas de Mallet Burgess, the General Director of New Zealand Opera, about this extraordinary year of challenges that COVID-19 has presented for the Company.  Also about the power of adaptability with three productions currently in rehearsal and performance - Poulenc's The Human Voice, Handel's Semele, and Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King.


Thomas de Mallet Burgess (image by Garry Brandon)

CLARE: Tell me about what kind of year this has been for NZ Opera with the enormous challenges of COVID-19. Has the survival of the company been dependent on its power of adaptability?

THOMAS: No doubt about it.  Adapt. Pivot. Turn on a pin. There is a local, a national, and an international situation. And really is quite fair to divide it in that way.  Auckland is quite different from other parts of the country, for example, we were originally programmed to open The Human Voice at Hotel DeBrett at the beginning of our tour and we’ve now postponed those performances because the rest of the country was in level one.  So we switched our dates around. We’ve also been able to put on some recitals in Wellington to take advantage of level one there.

From a broader perspective, thinking internationally, the rest of the world is in a pretty challenging position in regard to opera.  Quite recently the Met [New York Metropolitan Opera], announced it was cancelling its 2020/2021 season completely.  The announcement came with a message which was until there was either a vaccine or herd immunity, or some other reason for audience and performers not to wear masks, the Met would not perform. The Met Opera may never open again. The question of what remains in the wake of COVID I don’t think we’ve fully faced up to. Like many people, we are crossing our fingers and hoping for the best outcomes. 

But I’m also conscious that here in Aotearoa we’ve benefitted from being able to see how the virus was affecting other countries.  We also benefitted from a government that was proactive in its approach, and we benefitted from our geological isolation and our relatively low population level. So a number of factors made it slightly easier for us in dealing with this than the rest of the world. That has meant we’ve been able to continue to plan rather than having to cancel everything and going home for a while. I think that companies such as NZ Opera have the benefit of a good group of people working on projects and are well placed because we can use those resources, our infrastructure allows us to pivot quite quickly.  


Cast of Semele (image by Garry Brandon)

CLARE: So principal singers and chorus members have had some performance opportunities this year? 

THOMAS: Yes Semele is the first production that will feature a chorus and they are rehearsing at the moment.  And we were able to rehearse socially distanced during the previous level.  And we rehearsed the principals, some of whom were in the country, some of whom had to quarantine for the two weeks.  We rehearsed at level 2.5, socially distanced and with masks on.  Which was quite intriguing, especially for the love scenes!  But such was the desire by the singers, that they made the decision to stay in the country to see this project through.  

So being able to return to performance has been because of the sheer determination and bloody-mindedness of the people that contributed to those productions.

CLARE:  I wonder if your particular skill base (working with all sizes of productions and in all kinds of companies previously) has been really ideal for the company in the year of Covid? 

THOMAS: Yes I think it has. And it's not only about meeting the need of our audiences for live performances but it’s also about navigating a ship for the company in very choppy seas.  We have worked very hard to remunerate even if performances have not been possible. And I’m finding my experience as a CEO in multiple contexts has been hugely useful in having the confidence to lead this organisation in this complex situation.  

Way back in March when we saw what was happening in Wuhan, and we decided to bring forward our two-year plans so that we would be in a position to keep a company going and work from home. So, early decisions like that enabled us to transition to different working arrangements with comparative ease. The artistic outcomes, the flexibility that this company offers us, but behind that is a group of people that need to be kept together amid huge concern for the future of the arts and live performance.

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Amanda Atlas rehearsing The Human Voice (image by Grant Triplow)

CLARE: And so exciting that there are some performances coming up.  Tell me how The Human Voice works in a hotel room - quite intriguing.

THOMAS: So there are four stations, if you like, for the various points of action - the keyboard with the pianist is located in the bathroom, and there is a bed, and there is the table where the wine is drunk, the cheese is cut, the conversation on the phone, and then there is the door.  So in each venue, the two performers have to rethink how to block their movements in those spaces.

From the point of view of the show, it’s a kind of psycho-drama so it’s the relationship between the music, text and the character that is even more important than the blocking.  And the audience will have a huge effect on the performance - their emotions, their reactions will be key to shaping the performance.  The audience gets to play detective to work out the complexity of Elle’s conversation on the phone. 

CLARE: You have two performances in an evening with two performers who presumably will present different aspects of the role?

THOMAS: Both performers bring really special things to the character of Elle.  Fiona McAndrew actually created the role in Perth for this production and Amanda Atlas was added in New Zealand.  Both were chosen specifically because they are older women, which I find intriguing because their emotional world is more developed.  Also what happens when the voice ages and carries with it the beauty and also the trauma of a life lived? Both performers have had distinguished careers and lives and that reflects in the qualities of their voices.

CLARE:  And conceivably the more mature members of the audience are likely to be able to relate to Elle. 

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Fiona McAndrew rehearsing The Human Voice (image by Grant Triplow)

THOMAS: It will be interesting to see how audiences relate to that character.  It’s something that generally interests me in opera.  As opera has declined as an art form, opera has responded in various ways - one of the ways is a kind of ‘sexed-up’, youthful version of the art form.  And when that young person is no longer the prettiest, most svelt example, then someone else comes along and is celebrated.  It feels at times like a vampirish attitude. Yet as artists become older, they have more to offer than when they’re ‘fresh behind the ears’. And how and in what way does opera embrace that for the benefit of their audiences?

CLARE: With your production of Semele it’s a more lush and sensual piece, conceivably more youthful cast - a different feel altogether.  And how does the Handel piece work in the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell? 

THOMAS: One of the reasons to stage Baroque opera is because there is a lot of interest in New Zealand in this era.  I wanted this production to draw together all the skills together and we were hugely fortunate to find Peter Walls the conductor who is not only knowledgable about Baroque opera but also the landscape in NZ.  He’s been able to form a group from all over the country who are just mad about Baroque opera!  

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Conductor Peter Walls (image by Garry Brandon)

The venue of the Cathedral allows us to play out the conflict between the sacred and the profane.  Handel was asked to write an oratorio [sacred music] but his old instincts couldn’t die and he managed to insert quite a bit of opera into the plot.  The consequence is you have moments of great spiritual beauty and other moments which are totally and utterly worldly and profane.  And I wanted to explore that tension in the work within the confines of a very spiritual place.  So that we the audience are led to reflect what that conflict is within ourself.

CLARE: And how does the company deal with the stage directions - the flames at the altar of Juno, etc - without the theatrical trapdoors or fly tower?

THOMAS: Yes, well this is most definitely not a Baroque theatre.  Because Semele was written as an oratorio, it doesn’t contain as much machinery.  Some things are quite cleverly by Handel and his librettist ’reported’ which is handy!

The key is that the opera starts with a wedding and ends with a wedding.  So the altar will be utilised (our own altar not the Cathedrals). Jupiter and Semele's love nest is going to be a huge bed, which is deliberate to intensify the tension between the sacred and the profane.  We worked quite closely with the Very Reverend Anne Mills and the Cathedral to take them through our plans.  

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Emma Pearson and Amitai Pati (image by Garry Brandon)

CLARE: So it seems that putting productions in different performance arenas can break down the usual expectations and could really engage audiences.

THOMAS:  Yes it’s something that’s really important to me. 

CLARE: And you are filming this production so that a broader audience will have the chance to engage.

THOMAS: Yes, filming becomes the wedding video. One of the things that COVID-19 has taught us is that video production is hugely important.  So we have managed to raise the funds to film Semele and we hope to get this production out there to a wider public through that medium.

The Human Voice - 13 Oct to 12 Nov national tour

Semele  - 29 Oct to 6 Nov in Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell Auckland

Eight Songs for a Mad King  - 3, 5, 6 December Tūranga, Christchurch


Written By: Clare Martin Clare has performed as an opera, recital and oratorio artist in UK most notably the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London. In NZ she has performed with NZ Opera and with the NZ Symphony Orchestra but more recently she has moved into a wider range of contemporary genres including jazz and even Leonard Cohen. Since 2008 Clare has been teaching from her own music studio working with professional and beginner singers. In 2017 she was a mentor on TVNZ’s The Naked Choir working with a cappella choirs and she currently coaches barbershop and a woman’s ensemble.