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“I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. And that music.”

Stuart MaunderDirector - The Mikado 2019

David Larsen talks to Director Stuart Maunder

“I sink a few more ships, it’s true, than a well-bred monarch ought to do…” Little Stuart Maunder is seven years old, a bright-eyed farm boy from north-western New South Wales. His parents have more or less got over their initial bewilderment at his love for all things dramatic, and have taken him in to town to see the Boggabri Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of The Pirates of Penzance. “The local Anglican minister played the Pirate King. I remember being absolutely mesmerised.”

So ultimately, it’s all Reverend Taylor’s fault: this is the moment when Maunder steps onto the path that leads to a life spent in opera companies. Though Maunder points out that the origin story is in fact a bit more complicated than that. He’d nailed down his first role in a Gilbert & Sullivan show before he was nine — “I was the Midshipmite in H.M.S. Pinafore, again for the Boggabri ADS” — but he didn’t discover opera for another decade.

“Really G&S is an offshoot from opera, they became a distinctly different thing — they’re the precursor of the modern Broadway musical. D’Oyly Carte, the fellow who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together, wanted to create a whole new English school of opera.”

The upshot is that Maunder could spend most of his teen years as an ever-more-passionate Gilbert & Sullivan enthusiast without ever thinking of himself as an opera person. “While I was at boarding school I was cast as Sir Despard Murgatroyd in Ruddigore, which is one of the lesser known pieces, the piece that followed The Mikado. And my agriculture teacher leant me a book called Martyn Green’s Treasury of Gilbert & Sullivan, which annotated all of the librettos, and I read it from cover to cover and fell in love with the language. Words that you’d never meet in your ordinary life, words that had never entered my head. I devoured that book. So really for me, the words started it all. The adoration of Sullivan came very much after the adoration of Gilbert.” Opera, on the other hand, did not rear its head for him until he had gone off to London, failed to be discovered as the next great Gilbert & Sullivan performer, and slunk back to Australia to start a law degree.

“I was absolutely convinced, as only an 18 year old can be, that I was going to be the next star with the D’Oyly Carte company in London, which was still going strong most of a century after Carte founded it. So I went over to England to imbibe the country and to make my fortune, and the reality was I spent two and a half months there, ushered at the Saddlers Wells Theatre, saw nine Mikados, nine Pinafores, four Ruddigores, a couple of Patiences, had a glorious time…. and I kept on getting the call to come back — my parents would tell me you’ve got this offer from this university, what are you doing, what are your plans…. like every other set of parents, they wanted me to get something solid behind me. So I came back and enrolled for law and loathed every second of it, and that’s when I saw The Magic Flute.”

Entirely against his will, he adds: “Honestly, a friend of mine physically dragged me in my first year at university to Ingmar Bergman’s film version”. It was a revelation. “I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. And that music.” Sydney in the late seventies was a good time to be a student newly in love with opera: the Australian Opera had a lot of repertoire on its books, and the student rush price was five dollars. “Mind you, if it was a Joan Sutherland show, they’d make us pay eight dollars. So in my first year I saw Seraglio and Madame Butterfly and The Cunning Little Vixen and Der Rosenkavalier and Rigoletto… it just went on and on, and I just could not believe this extraordinary art form. It was heart on the sleeve emotion, glorious music, and everything writ large.” It was all the things he already loved, but more so. “Everything was magnified.”

Another useful thing about the Australian Opera in the seventies: they were happy to take on trainees who had no opera experience. “During my law time I was in every play known to man and every amateur musical around. And somebody doing the sets for one of the plays I was in was working for Opera Australia in the technical department, and said that they were after a stage manager; and that was all I needed to hear.” He dropped his law degree like someone dropping a piece of rotten fruit, and he’s never looked back. “I started in 1978 as a trainee assistant stage manager — I had the longest title in the company — and I learned on the job.”

Maunder’s experience with The Mikado goes all the way back to playing the title role in a 1976 amateur production. “Then I assisted on an Opera Australia production in 1985, and I’ve revived that particular production many, many, many times. In 2012 I created and directed this Mikado for Opera Queensland in Brisbane that we will now see in Adelaide.” The design, he says, is gorgeously contemporary. “It’s basically like you’ve been let loose in one of those glorious Japanese stationary stores. It’s the Japan that’s bequeathed us Harajuku fashion and Hello Kitty, our school girls are very much from that mindset.”

As a G&S aficionado, Maunder is delighted to finally be able to add The Mikado back into the State Opera repertoire. “It’s part of the push to get more opera out there. As I like to put it, we’re in the process of performing our way to sustainability.”

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