Boggabri, a rural farming town in New South Wales, is perhaps as far removed from the epicentre of opera as one can get.
When, as a young man, the Boggabri-born Stuart Maunder was exposed to a cinematic performance of Mozart’s 'The Magic Flute', his life was transformed. As the new Artistic Director of the State Opera of South Australia, Stuart brings his fervent belief, formed by his life experience, that if you get young people into the theatre to witness authentic and artistically refined renditions of the great operas, the universality of the craft will resonate as strongly as a Wagnerian bass.
“I’m a firm believer that the thing that will introduce people to opera is actually just going and actually experiencing it. It doesn’t mean that you have to do absolutely outrageous productions, it doesn’t mean you have to do all new works, because I would say a great performance of 'La bohème' or 'Tosca' or 'The Marriage Of Figaro' would say the same thing to a youngster as it would to a person of my age.”
“Human nature is as it is and what we need to do is make sure that we build the pathways for people to just come and view the work and I defy them not to have a good time, defy them not to be moved.”
While these statements are reflective of Stuart’s own awakening to the art form, he has also witnessed similar transformations within others during his stewardship of New Zealand opera.
“We had a whole pile of young kids come along to a dress rehearsal, and all these Maori kids from South Auckland, one fellow couldn’t find the words to describe what he felt in watching this piece and he finally said that he thought it was like watching a poem on stage. It hit him right in the core.”
Stuart is acutely aware of the need to preside over a repertoire which balances the new and the old, the obscure and the staples. The “big ten” operas can be presented regularly, though, so long as they are delivered at the highest standard.
“People still queue up to see the Mona Lisa or Guernica or any of those great works of art because you look at it and you see it with a different eye; you don’t need to have [an opera] set inside a rubbish dump in order for it to work with a new audience. We can all make the leap and if they are well told and they’re thrillingly sung and thrillingly performed then it’s breathtaking opera really. It’s not rocket science.”
While Stuart has worked across genres, directing musical theatre shows such as 'My Fair Lady' for Opera Australia, he recognises that an opera company must fulfil their core artistic obligations before exploring beyond that realm.
“What I’ve done in [New Zealand] is just to try to build awareness of the art form and look after our nearest and dearest in the audience, as well as trying to push the boundaries; doing things like 'Sweeney Todd', trying to get to a theatre audience as well.”
“We’re called an opera company and that’s what’s on the box, that’s what people actually want to come and see, so I will only try and do all these other things if it’s going to be an adjunct to what we already do.”
His appointment, along with new Executive Director Yarmila Alfonzetti, has been greeted warmly by a community that is already well acquainted with him from his visits as a director and consumer.
“I’ve probably travelled to Adelaide more than any other city in the world to view opera.”
State Opera of South Australia’s 2018 programme begins with 'The Pearl Fishers' on 12 May at The Festival Theatre.