During New Zealand’s centennial celebrations in 1940 a professional staging of a locally produced opera – Gounod’s Faust – was seen in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. A local orchestra and chorus and some principals were assembled, but prominent British and Australian singers took the leading roles.
In 1948 the New Zealand Broadcasting Service used the newly formed National Orchestra for its production of Carmen (Bizet) in the four main cities. The next year the orchestra was an incentive for the last New Zealand tour by J. C. Williamson’s opera company.
The creation of the National Opera of Australia in 1951 and its 1954 tour further highlighted New Zealand’s need for a resident opera company. Baritone Donald Munro formed the New Zealand Opera Company and many singers, then overseas, rallied to support his enterprise.
The company began with modest one-act pieces such as The telephone (Menotti) and La serva padrona (Pergolesi) in 1954. Their next highly successful productions of small works – Susanna’s secret (Wolf-Ferrari) and Menotti’s The medium and The consul – encouraged a full-scale work in 1958: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. It visited 47 towns, with piano accompaniment in small towns and orchestra in cities. The barber of Seville (Rossini) followed in 1959.
A change of mind
An unexpected musical stimulus in 1963 was a visit by Sadler’s Wells Opera with sparkling productions of The merry widow and the New Zealand premiere of Orpheus in the underworld. These productions caused the New Zealand Opera Company to look upon the light opera genre more favourably.
The 1960s were the company’s years of triumph. From 1963 funding from the newly established QE II Arts Council allowed it sometimes to tour, to employ the National Orchestra and to undertake more large-scale productions. There were many memorable productions, especially Porgy and Bess with Īnia Te Wīata. This confirmed the viability of resident New Zealand opera employing almost entirely New Zealand artists and production teams.
In 1971 the company folded after a disappointing Figaro and an Aida that was a triumph. Personality and financial problems had emerged, but another reason for failure was that national touring had become an anachronism worldwide. Transport costs were too high, and television discouraged people, particularly in smaller centres, from going to shows that hardly matched what they could see in their living rooms.
Filling the opera gap
In the following decade energetic amateur or semi-professional companies arose in the main centres.
- In Auckland among the several short-lived groups was Perkel Opera, launched in 1974, which produced some 20 operas, touring widely in the North Island. In 1989 it merged with two smaller companies to form Auckland Metropolitan Opera.
- Opera Technique in Wellington flourished from 1954 for 40 years, also staging around 20 productions of opera, operetta and musical comedy, including a few New Zealand compositions.
- The New Opera Company of Wellington, established in 1972, staged six productions over its five years.
- In 1975 a group formed under Geoffrey de Lautour’s leadership – the De La Tour Opera – toured small-scale works in the Wellington region. In 1984 it became Wellington City Opera.
- In Christchurch Dorothy Hitch’s Shoestring Opera began with lunchtime opera concerts, and by the 1980s had moved to full-scale opera.
These barren years were relieved by an inspiring visit in 1976 from the Australian Opera, performing Rigoletto (Verdi) and Jenůfa (Janáček).
Comments in 1988 by Auckland Star music critic Desmond Mahoney summed up the tragedy of the New Zealand Opera Company’s demise: ‘Opera has failed so far because it has never had reliable financial backing, because the amateurs co-opted in boards of management have never been able to resist interfering in the artistic side, because personalities have often loomed larger than the objective of established opera, and most of all because opera has never, apart from a short spell, been able to rely on orchestral accompaniment.’1
The National Opera of New Zealand
In 1978 Arts Council facilitated the creation of the National Opera of New Zealand, based in Auckland. In 1982 Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the screw and Kurt Weill’s Rise and fall of the city of Mahagonny were artistically excellent, but through inadequate funding and ill-advised repertoire, this company too collapsed.