NZ Opera board resignations: 'Huge upswelling of discontent and confusion' over artistic direction - Witi Ihimaera

Resigning NZ Opera board member Witi Ihimaera
Resigning NZ Opera board member Witi Ihimaera says there is a lot of discontent about the artistic direction of NZ Opera. Photo credit: WORD Christchurch via RNZ

By Emma Hatton of RNZ

The three board members who resigned from NZ Opera last week have spoken out about their decision, hitting back at suggestions it was linked to a new performance based on the antics of a group of unruly tourists.

Last week, RNZ revealed Witi Ihimaera, Murray Shaw and Rachael Walkinton had stepped down due to the artistic direction the company was headed in.

The timing coincided with the public announcement of a new show based on an English family, leading to public speculation and media commentary that this was the real reason.

Ihimaera said in the trio's letter of resignation there was no mention of the show, nor of grievances with the general director of the company Thomas de Mallet Burgess.

"We resigned because one of our jobs as governors is to mitigate risk to the reputation of the company, and what I saw was a huge upswelling of discontent and confusion about the artistic direction of the company.

"So it was alarming [and] there was a flashpoint that we reached as governors, where we realised that there was no opportunity for us to be able to work as governors any longer."

He said that discontent and confusion came from people who were worried over whether New Zealand Opera was providing the leadership and pastoral care for its constituents - and also over a concern of a possible drop in private philanthropic donations and public funding.

"This is not about editing opera... this is what we saw as a lack of thought and lack of responsibility toward those who love opera."

This included concern about a lack of opportunity for returning New Zealand singers.

"In my case, there were so many of these significant rising stars that we really had to try and get more employment opportunities," Ihimaera said.

"They'd come from Paris, London, New York... to be home and I thought that the current company really needed to employ more employment opportunities which therefore meant putting on more opera."

A lot of support - NZ Opera

NZ Opera issued a statement on Friday responding to RNZ's coverage of the resignations.

"New Zealand Opera would like to acknowledge the strength and depth of support we have received for change as we continue to grow and look to meet the needs and demands of our audiences and artists," the statement read.

"We are committed to enhancing and evolving the art form by adding a diverse, inclusive lens and bringing the best global and local creative talent to our productions.

"In presenting an expanded range of productions, we are fulfilling our mandate from Creative NZ. We thank our loyal supporters and benefactors, whose contribution is vital to the arts in New Zealand.

"We look forward to welcoming new board members and thank the departing members for their contributions."

Ihimaera said the strategy of reimagining opera was a fine strategy, but the trio felt traditional supporters of opera had not been taken along.

"It's to do with actually making sure that the opera company and its artistic direction provides what people want. And also, at the same time, it has had a very hard fought for, long-standing, loyal audience.

"That was why we felt that we had to do what we had to do, was to ask questions, was to ask, is that audience - the audience that would provide the money for something like the unruly tourists - was that being cared for as well? Was it being taken along on this journey?"

He said he did not feel as though NZ Opera had acknowledged the reasons for the trio's resignations.

"To date, it still has not allayed any confusion and fears, or made any statements to its community about our resignation, except to accept our resignation."