New Zealand has produced classical musicians – both instrumentalists and singers – whose achievements have been equivalent to the best of their peers anywhere. Some made their mark in New Zealand and others on the international stage. Performers such as Donald McIntyre and Kiri Te Kanawa are among the most recognised New Zealanders worldwide.
The importance of opera
Thanks to the numerous visits from mostly Australian-based opera companies from the early 1860s, opera was part of New Zealand’s cultural landscape from colonial times. This may help explain the extraordinary number of New Zealand opera singers who have achieved international recognition. Two of the earliest operatic stars were women.
Frances Alda (1879–1952) was born in Christchurch, but from 1884, after the death of her mother, was brought up by grandparents in Melbourne, Australia. She made a successful debut at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1904 in the title role of Massenet’s Manon (having been coached by the composer himself). Two years later, she stepped in to replace an unwell Nellie Melba at Covent Garden in London. In 1908 she sang at both La Scala in Milan and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Her New Zealand origins initially brought out snobbery in the New York critics: ‘the young singer who made her debut last evening comes from the land of the sheep, and she bleated like one of them’.1 But within a short time she had established herself as the leading soprano at the Met – and her reputation remained undiminished until her retirement in 1929. She returned to New Zealand for a recital tour in 1927.
An adoring audience
Rosina Buckman’s 1922 tour of New Zealand with her husband, tenor Maurice d’Oisley, was a resounding success. There was a crowd of over 3,000 at her first Auckland Town Hall appearance on 20 May. The audience cheered every song and demanded so many encores that the concert went on for an extra 30 minutes.
Just two years younger than Alda, Rosina Buckman (1881–1948) grew up on a farm in Āpiti in the central North Island. Her professional career developed in Australia, where she sang alongside Nellie Melba and John McCormack. By 1914 she was singing at Covent Garden and soon came to be regarded as one of the greatest sopranos working in Britain. Buckman was welcomed back to New Zealand in a triumphant concert tour in 1922.