People may have seen the name Jacqueline Coats in our 2018 season brochure as director of La bohème, but that’s only one of several directing projects with New Zealand Opera this year – she's currently directing the Opera in Schools version of The Elixir of Love, and is also a regular Assistant Director for mainstage seasons.
Let’s start at the beginning – how did you discover you wanted to be an opera director, and where did it all start?
I came to opera in my mid-20s. I hadn’t had much experience of the art form growing up – I was more involved with theatre and musical theatre as a teenager, and went on to study theatre and film at Victoria University. By that stage, I had decided I wanted to be a director, but opera didn’t really click for me until I went to see a production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes by Wellington City Opera. I was blown away by the power, the scale, the emotion of it all – and I was hooked!
You’ve been involved in Opera in Schools for several years, working with a Music Director to create new, short adaptations that are suitable for young New Zealand audiences. What does adapting a full length classical work into a 45 minute version involve?
Story, story, story! We hone down the story so it is absolutely clear in its telling (as we all know, the plots can sometimes be quite complicated in operatic comedies). We try to keep all the ‘best bits’ of the music, so that the audiences get a good sense of what the full-length opera is like, while at the same time keeping the action moving. I always keep in mind the audience we are performing to – primary schools or high schools – and look for the humour within the plot which will appeal to them as first-time opera audiences, sometimes adapting the characters or the situations into something that will be more immediately recognisable to them (for example, in the case of ‘Elixir’, setting it in a fish and chip shop in New Zealand, rather than in the middle of the Italian countryside).
Who else is involved in Opera in Schools this year?
I am once again working with the wonderful David Kelly as Music Director. We have a very lovely cast made up of the three Dame Malvina Major Foundation Emerging Artists - Natasha Wilson, Manase Latu and Samson Setu – rounded out by Christchurch born and bred baritone, Angus Simmons. Featuring an ingenious revolving shop designed by Jan Ubels, with fabulous contemporary costumes by Elizabeth Whiting, it is a funny and engaging take on Donezetti’s tale of unrequited (then of course, requited) love!
What’s the most satisfying thing about being involved in music education?
Hand on heart, I can say that giving young people their first taste of opera is one of the best jobs you can have. My favourite comment from a student is hearing them say, “I thought I would hate it, but I love it” – who can ask for a better review than that?!
Looking ahead you’ll be directing a very exciting young cast in the mainstage season of La bohème later in the year – but the work on that began some time ago. What stage of the creation process are you in for this production and what’s happened so far?
Casting is done, and I am getting excited about starting rehearsals with them in August. I have been working with my artistic team (Rachael Walker – set, Elizabeth Whiting – costume, Jennifer Lal – lighting) over the past few months on the design, and we are now in the final stages of completing that part of the process. More to come on that soon . . .
Of course, this isn’t the first full length opera you’ve directed – what are some of your other career highlights to date, and why?
There are lots of moments of course, and for many reasons. But the first one that came to me when I read this question was directing the Wellington production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde for New Zealand Opera in 2014 – Britten is obviously always a highlight for me! Over 100 kids (plus a couple of adults) onstage, with an orchestra of 50 (including a hand-bell chorus). The moment when they realise that the flood is over, and start to sing ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’, each part building over the next, with finally the audience joining in, is still one of the most exhilarating opera moments for me. It moved me every time in performance, and is one of my favourite memories of my career so far.