Taking a leaf from the repertory book

From a first audience of nine 11 years ago to 200 concerts a year around the country and seven overseas tours for music lovers, Operatunity has developed a thriving musical company. Charmian Smith talks to one of the directors.

Operatunity actor/direstor Geoffery Hughes in the pantomime Puss 'n Gumboots. Photo by Grey Star.
Operatunity actor/direstor Geoffery Hughes in the pantomime Puss 'n Gumboots. Photo by Grey Star.
Directors Geoffrey Hughes, Susan Boland and John Cameron got tired of singers complaining there was no work for them, so the trio of opera singers decided to make work for themselves and others.

"We basically decided the world doesn't owe you a living so we formed Operatunity to work for ourselves and fellow singers, and we survive totally on box office. For an arts organisation, that's unheard of in New Zealand," Hughes said in a telephone interview from Whangarei.

He and his troupe were setting up the theatre for the 11am performance of their Christmas pantomime, Puss 'n Gumboots, having driven from Hamilton where they had performed the previous day.

They will be performing in Mosgiel on December 3.

Although they do not receive any grants or sponsorship, Hughes claims they are the largest provider of live entertainment in the country, giving more than 200 concerts a year in eight national tours to 24 venues.

"We are like an old English repertory company, drive into town, set up, do the show, pack it up and drive off to the next town. It's an old tradition that's very rarely done nowadays."

From an audience of nine for their first concert 11 years ago, they now have more than 10,000 on their mailing list - "they say an overnight success takes 10 years hard work," he quipped.

The company specialises in daytime concerts followed by lunch, and the audience is mostly older, but also includes younger people who are able to attend during the day.

For their eight concert tours each year they aim to present completely different styles of music. Next year songs from musicals feature in one, "popera" - opera, light opera and pop crossover music in another, Forbidden Broadway (a spoof of Broadway musicals), music for romantics from crooners such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and Irish music feature in others, he said.

The three directors brainstorm the themes for each season, hire the performers and, on the basis of who they have, choose the music and apply for the performing rights.

"Usually it's four to five singers and accompanist, or three singers and three in a band. 'The best of classics' had four singers and a string trio."

Such a schedule, 24 concerts in 24 cities in 24 days with weekends between, is hard work, especially as the performers do everything themselves, setting up the stage, scenery, props and lighting, as well as running the box office and serving a lunch of sandwiches, cakes, tea and coffee to the guests after the show. They aim to keep ticket prices low, at $30, which provides very little profit, he said.

"When we initially started the concerts 11 years ago we would come on stage, sing, run backstage and make sandwiches and come back on stage. Now we have 500 in the audience that's a bit of a tough ask, so we have sandwiches delivered."

Next year they are planning to offer evening concerts as well as the daytime ones, he said.

At the suggestion of some audience members, the company has developed a travel club which includes concerts and other music-associated activities on its tours. Among the five staff in the Auckland office, they employ a full-time travel agent to organise the seven trips a year.

"I've just come back from the Murray River [in Australia] where we chartered the Murray Princess and took 104 people on that. A few years ago we went to Norfolk Island and chartered an airbus from Air New Zealand, filled that and had 70 on the waiting list. We took singers and performers and gave concerts on the island."

Another trip was a visit to the birthplaces of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and other European composers. The tours attract mothers and daughters who want to spend quality time together, and now they have a "mothers and daughters" club, he said.

One of the three directors goes on each concert tour and each overseas trip has one director who follows it from its inception and knows it inside out so they can solve any problems that arise on the way.

"We work long hours just to keep the machine on the road," he said.

In Mosgiel on Monday, Operatunity will be performing its Christmas panto, Puss 'n' Gumboots, written by Hughes.

"It's done in a traditional English style, but being daytime and a more conservative audience I couldn't put in all the double entendres normal in slightly risqué English pantos, but there's lots of jokes including topical ones about the American election and toxic exports from Australia with Paul Henry being sent back, audience participation, the panto dame, a man dressed as a woman and a woman dressed as a man - the queen's a man and the king's a woman, and there's the usual villain. It's loosely based on Puss in Boots who travels through fairy-tale land."

The songs include Fred Dagg's If It Weren't For Your Gumboots, the Cat duet by Rossini, I Wonder What the King's Doing Tonight from Camelot, Tomorrow from Annie, the evil witch sings I Wanna Be Evil and many other popular songs, he said.

Operatunity also does corporate events, and for 15 years it used to take opera to schools with its Class Act Opera. However, that went into recess when the Government cut music and arts funding for schools, They hope to resurrect it at some stage but it is not financially viable at present, he said.


See it

Operatunity's Christmas pantomime is at Coronation Hall, Mosgiel on December 3 at 11am.
For more information, visit www.operatunity.co.nz.

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