High standards and fine judgement, Marian Minson

Opera in New Zealand: Aspects of History and Performance, 
Adrienne Simpson (ed),
Witham Press (PO Box 28-074), Wellington, 1990, $24.95

Since her recent return to New Zealand, Wellington musical historian Adrienne Simpson has made a strong impact with regular talks on the Concert Programme and an impressive list of publications. Her latest venture, Opera in New Zealand, displays the high standards and fine judgement one has come to expect from her. The volume does not set out to be a complete history of opera in New Zealand but, as Simpson explains in her preface, it attempts to chart the extent of the territory, emphasising some of the strands of activity which a future history will need to encompass. Ten essays by eight contributors are arranged under the headings ‘Companies’, ‘Composers’, ‘Singers’ and ‘Supporters’.

Entertaining and elegantly written chapters by Simpson herself, John Mansfield Thomson and Peter Downes cover the earliest opera in New Zealand from 1864 to 1910 and make particularly absorbing reading. All three have the gift of bringing their subjects alive with personal anecdotes and insights adding interest to thoroughly researched detail. They describe three Australian companies who brought a truly astonishing repertoire of works to this country in an era when opera was much more a part of popular culture than it is today. From Invercargill to Auckland, William Lyster Martin, Fanny Simonsen and the Pollard family’s ‘Liliputian’ companies sang their way through dozens of operas and operettas, with touring groups of up to 60, including their own orchestras and choruses, as well as a full range of elaborate sets and costumes.

Jeremy Commons on composers Luscombe Searelle and Alfred Hill writes with flair and enthusiasm, convincing the reader that the answer to his question ‘Who was Luscombe Searelle?’ is worth knowing. It is perhaps stretching definitions to call Searelle a New Zealander, since he spent only his adolescent years here, his reputation as a composer was entirely built up overseas and his music contained no identifiable references to New Zealand. Nonetheless, his inclusion demonstrates that there are still discoveries to be made of forgotten yet interesting figures with New Zealand connections. Alfred Hill, on the other hand, arrived at the age of two and not only spent a large part of his adult life working in New Zealand, but frequently used Maori themes. J.M. Thomson’s 1980 biography has advanced knowledge of Hill beyond the level of ‘Waiata Poi ‘ and Commons here provides fresh insights into his operas.

Contemporary composers are represented with a perceptive essay by William Dart on David Farquhar which deals with his extensive composing for all aspects of theatre. Although New Zealand-born prima donnas Frances Alda and Rosina Buckman made international reputations in the early 20th century, singers often have a more ephemeral career than composers. Adrienne Simpson can claim to have rediscovered Frances Alda who made her name principally at the New York Metropolitan; while a chapter by J M Thomson with Anne Morrison on Rosina Buckman brings to life a performer who has always managed to retain an appreciative and constant presence here.

Roger Flury’s essay on Donald McIntyre is an excellent choice in the light of his remarkable 1990 performances in Die Meistersinger. Flury conveys Mclntyre’s charm and energy and allows him to speak for himself, with well-chosen extracts from a 1989 interview. The book concludes with Roger Wilson’s witty and entertaining account of the fortunes of the New Zealand Opera Society, a topic which could well have been monumentally boring.

Opera in New Zealand gives a vivid picture of an art form that is undergoing a revival, it whets the appetite for a fuller history and should delight both the general and specialist reader.


Marian Minson is Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. She writes on New Zealand art history and is also an opera enthusiast.



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