Big Sing - every breath they drew was 'Hallelujah'

The principal of my wife's school was stranded by volcanic ash in Wellington last Thursday, and the request went out to represent the school in the Dress Circle of the Dunedin Town Hall for the high school choral showcase, The Big Sing.

I eagerly agreed to be her Plus One, even though the imperiousness of the occasion meant my favourite blue Levi's with the glob of superglue on the thigh would have to be replaced by something a little less rock'n'roll. I went for a sober mix of black and charcoal, covering it all with the same Rodd & Gunn coat the All Blacks wore to public functions at the last World Cup.

An aggressive spray of Guerlain L'Instant Extreme, just in case I finished up sitting next to someone who really knew the cut and jib of a top French perfumes, and I was done.

I could hear the whispering from behind cupped hands as we were shown to our seats.

"My God, that's Roy Colbert! I haven't seen him since he was a raggedy-ass hippie in 1972 - he must be a principal now! What possible school would lower their drawbridge to let him cross their moat?"

I surveyed the stage from front row centre. How the memories came thundering back. I was in two primary school choral festivals here 50 years ago, one tiny tiny speck in a vast sea of faces as the legendary Val Drew took us through Friday massed singing rehearsal. Val was a close family friend, but he was someone destined to become a distant family enemy when he stopped Pedro The Fisherman and roared out - "Roy Colbert! Kaikorai! you are not singing!"

Well of course I wasn't, I couldn't give a rat's bottom about Pedro the fisherman, who was always whistling a merry call, I would have been poking the back of the girl in front of me with my index finger; that's what I did at choral festivals.

But did I have to be publicly humiliated in this way? No.

At high school, I was in the choir until my voice broke, when I changed dramatically from a gonadless soprano of almost glass-shattering purity into a boy with a cavernous grunt only good for baritonal nonsense syllables in doo-wop.

I scanned the programme. Otago Boys' High School were of course there. More than once. I told my wife these boys had a mightily high tradition to uphold. "We were tremendously good," I said.

There were fewer parents in the Dunedin Town Hall last Thursday than I had expected, but it was still a big crowd. The noise level trebled when boys were singing. Otago Boys' did Tom Lehrer's Masochism Tango, a remarkable thing to go out under the banner of the school on the hill. When I was there in the 1960s, if you mentioned Tom Lehrer's name, even in the playground, you were caned to within an inch of your life.

Although Otago Boys' were stunning last Thursday night, as indeed the school has been for 148 years, the choir bones in my body were tingled most by Otago Girls' High.

My grandfather was music and choirmaster there many moons ago, and he wrote the school song they still try and sing today (the melody covers nine octaves and can really only be sung suitably by four different choirs). So yes, my ears were slanted.

It was a good night. Many of the schools just took a nice song and sang it, where I was hoping for contrapuntal swoop and double canons, but in among the Ave Marias, there were two Queen songs, plus one that was sung in the final of American Idol.

And the now ubiquitous Hallelujah was the massed item at the end. Who could have predicted putting this hitherto languishing, albeit magnificent Leonard Cohen song into Shrek would turn it into something everyone sings in the shower?We will definitely go again next year.

Roy Colbert is a Dunedin writer.

Add a Comment

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter