How long has Toi Toi Opera been going?
We had our first production Suor Angelica & Elegies last February in 2021 – so we haven’t been around for terribly long, but we have made quite an impact in that time.
And you formed during Covid, which seems like an almost crazy thing to do now!
We founded the company in 2019, with the intention of mounting our first production in 2020 – and so the gestational period was pre-covid. There were some significant challenges prior to covid too of course – the earthquakes caused the loss of so many of Christchurch’s wonderful venues, and also our local opera company, Southern Opera, which merged with New Zealand Opera. After the best part of a decade without a local opera company, we felt it was time to try and bring local opera talent back into the spotlight, and to rebuild and broaden the local audience for the artform.
Fantastic that you persevered, because I imagine a lot of people would have just thought, ‘Oh this is just too tough.’
We’re just so passionate about the talent here. There are so many fabulous singers, young and established, and they deserve the chance to develop and be showcased in roles.
Is that part of the reason why you started the company? You felt that you were just not getting opportunities?
Yes partly. There was a lot of singing talent here that was underutilised, so yes, there’s that side of it, but also a pool of exceptionally talented creatives here – many with deep experience in opera, and we wanted to re-engage them in making opera locally.
The talent pool here is amazing right across the arts sector and yet it seems we have a problem in terms of keeping people here. So building a company that is sustainable within the city is very important.
Absolutely – we couldn’t agree more. We have to be able to showcase our regional talent and provide singers and creatives with the opportunity to perform in and produce opera of the highest quality, right here.
How’s the response been from local audiences?
We’ve been so overwhelmed with the generosity of the response – both from seasoned opera goers, and from those new to the art form. We were blown away by the reviews we received last year, but even more by the wonderful comments from audience members – that they could really feel the heart and love behind what we were doing, and that they were deeply moved. We were also utterly stunned at how incredible a production can sound and look, even when working on a shoestring budget, when you engage the right team on and off the stage – and this team is an absolute joy to work with.
How is it working in such a small company? Is it a different way of working?
I think there’s something really beautiful working with a small group of people where you can be in a room working together and the ideas are heard, the voices are much more accessible and valued equally. In larger companies you can get a hierarchy coming through out of necessity because there are so many people involved, but working with this group it is really easy to express an idea, try it out and immediately work with it. That’s a real benefit to working in a group like this. It lends itself that that kind of community creation.
Is there more room for collaboration with a small company? You have a little more incentive to be collaborative?
Really opera is the ultimate collaborative art. It is the best of everything you can put on the stage. It is visual, it’s aural, it’s visceral, it’s storytelling and it speaks to every sense. I’m really lucky that I started my career in a chamber opera company in the UK, and so I’m very familiar with that way of presenting opera to audiences and the thing that people love is that it’s so intimate and they get the sense of the unamplified voice right up close and that’s thrilling because we all respond to the voice – we hear an acoustic voice and we respond just as a baby does to its mother singing. It’s something that’s in us and being in that context it’s absolutely beautiful.
It’s just amazing to be in an environment where you feel like you have a say and you can contribute your own thoughts and feelings. From the get-go, in the rehearsal space, it was set up in a very open way, it was made very clear that we all had a part to play – so being able to collaborate like that is really special.
So let’s talk about the production that you’re about to stage… what can you tell me about it?
There are three pieces by two American composers and we are looking at the philosophy and idea of the American Dream. We are beginning with a piece called Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and that sets our scene and places us in this world and paints a picture of an American façade, we then follow this with a piece called A Hand of Bridge which has four people sitting together playing bridge but their minds are very faraway and contemplating deeper, darker thoughts and desires – and then our final piece is called Trouble in Tahiti, that’s a story of a couple not really communicating but trying really hard to establish a dream, like the American dream. It deals a lot with awkward silences.
And these are all quite intimate pieces?
Absolutely. We have a lot of the same cast throughout the pieces. Our pieces are set in a house and it travels through it. The ensemble are right there throughout and of course the venue – The Piano – is a very intimate space and it really works.
What I it that draw you to opera? Why this particular form?
There’s just so much about it. With this opera in particular as well, you’re experiencing a day in the life of this couple and it’s so realistic. I think opera can get put in a box but there’s just so much to it, there are so many exciting aspects to it.
I guess the other thing is that with opera – as opposed to other forms of singing – it really is just your voice. You can’t rely on other things to mask it. It must be quite exposing is it?
Completely. And I’ve done musical theatre as well, and opera is completely different. You don’t have a microphone and you’re just relying on your voice amplifying to fill a room. But it makes it more intimate as well, because you really are having a moment with the audience.
There’s no intermediary at all. You see that and feel it in the room. It’s such a unique art form and it also brings all of the other art forms together as well. Every element of the arts is involved. And of course, it moves people. The power of the human voice to move people is like nothing else.
I just love it. The reason why I love it changes from day to day and changes from production to production and I think that’s a big part of it: that constant rediscovering something brand new about it. I love the challenge of the collaboration of it. I’ve been really lucky to have worked in many mediums in film and theatre and I think there is nothing that really compares to these ideas, and voices and people coming together for a single moment. I love the currents of the opera – once it starts, it moves and there’s no stopping it.
How are audiences exposed to opera these days?
The sad thing is that children in schools don’t sing anymore. In our primary schools now, you are very unlikely to find singing at school assemblies. There’s been a deterioration in our school system for quite some time in regards to singing and group singing and that has led to a situation right now where a lot of children don’t get exposed to group singing. Singing is so important for communication – verbal and non-verbal – it’s a huge part of our education to sing and make music and listen to sound and it’s important for our well-being. The more people we can engage with to sing –especially from a young age – the better.
Opera is very diverse and is very adaptable. It is an incredible opportunity for all sorts of musicians and creatives. Many of the stories speak to life experiences. This is a very important pathway for young singers and also supporting those who go off overseas – it’s a great medium to work in and we need to encourage it. At the moment there’s a strong focus on contemporary music being taught in schools, but classical music is really a strong basis for many forms of music and an important educational tool. One of the aspects of Toi Toi that we’re really keen to highlight is that we’re about education – we want to use this art form to educate people about the arts and their integral place in the community. We want to create opportunities here for our artists – both young and not so young.
Singing is one of those art forms that it doesn’t really matter what age you are. Your voice typically doesn’t deteriorate.
Absolutely. And actually it’s also very good for your health too. You learn to breathe properly and anecdotally I’ve heard from doctors who have singers as patients and they noticed how well and healthy the singers were.
So tell me what your aspirations are for the company ?
Our ultimate goal is to build a company that is a resource. Our idea is to create a solid foundation that will showcase high quality opera, and bring on that next generation of artists, with a focus on accessibility. But most importantly we want to be an opera company that constantly explores different ways of presenting its work and remind people how integral arts organisations are in maintaining a healthy community heart.
Toi Toi Opera’s production – A Barber & Bernstein Double Bill – opens August 19. You can get your tickets here.
Read more about the company here.