‘Extravaganza of Opera’ to celebrate milestone

John Fisher, Don Madden and Bill Jenkinson in Otago Opera’s second production of Amahl and the...
John Fisher, Don Madden and Bill Jenkinson in Otago Opera’s second production of Amahl and the Night Visitors in 1959. Photo supplied.

Opera Otago, the oldest opera company in continuous existence in New Zealand, turns 60 this year. Rebecca Fox takes a look at its tumultuous history.

The words ‘‘skint'' and ‘‘on a shoestring'' keep coming up when talking about Opera Otago's history.

Started as the Dunedin Grand Opera Group in 1956 after Vera Gilbert, a migrant who missed the music of grand opera, put an advertisement in the evening paper, the group is still going strong 60 years later.

This weekend it will celebrate with an Extravaganza of Opera featuring extracts from 13 operas it has produced over the years. Principal guest artist is Dunedin soprano Emma Fraser, who is now singing with Opera Australia. Also performing are local singers Claire Barton, Ames Adams and Lois Johnston.

In the words of the late Gordon Parry in his book Facing the Music, the first 40 years of the Dunedin Opera Company, the company had a ‘‘history with almost as many twists in the plot as a Strauss operetta''.

The story of the company seems to be as much about how to make ends meet as it does about putting on operas.

It all started with a loss from the production of The Tales of Hoffman. After that, penny-pinching became a priority for the company.

Longtime member and keeper of the archives Noela Simpson said Peter Platt, then head of the University of Otago music department, conducted the group in The Tales and, with his eye on producing Faust in 1960, saw the need for an orchestra to accompany the company. That orchestra became the Dunedin Concert Orchestra, the forerunner to the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra.

He became the company's music director, raising the musical standards of the company, and through his connections with the Arts Council, helped get the company on the funding map.

A milestone in the company's history was the purchase of the Mayfair Theatre in 1968 for $18,000. A budget of $25,000 was set aside to refurbish the theatre.

‘‘It did mean we were so busy fundraising there wasn't much money for productions,'' Noela said.

Sub-groups of the company formed, one for children and the other to help train singers. To make up for a lack of funding, the company relied on fundraising and, of course, the hiring of costumes.

When 1963's Die Fledermaus made a profit, the company set up scholarships, and in 1969 was able to put on nine productions.

‘‘Along with owning our own theatre, it all sounded great, but we were skint. It took so much money to produce things, we did it all on a shoestring.''

For instance, the wardrobe for The Happy Prince, which involved 80 children, was done for about $80.

In the mid-1980s the company received a $40,000 grant from the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council, which made a ‘‘huge difference'' to the company. It also managed to clear its mortgage and overdrafts.

However, the Arts Council announced in the early '90s it would no longer fund the company, which in turn meant a reduction in the number of productions the company could put on.

In its first 20 years, the company put on 50 different productions, 42 in the second 20 years, but just 22 in the past 20 years.

About this time Opera Alive was set up, bringing more young people into the company.

The university's creation of performance voice courses also drew more young people to the city to study, who then joined the company.

Many of those singers, such as Jonathan Lemalu and Claire Barton, have gone on to professional careers. In recent years the company has also put an emphasis on performing local work, including those by Emeritus Prof John Drummond and Assoc Prof Athony Ritchie.


To see

Extravaganza of Opera, Mayfair Theatre March 19-20Opera Otago at Olveston, April 8-10.




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