Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Honours Tie Ceremony at Wanganui Collegiate School

On the 4th July the Wanganui Collegiate School ‘family’ gave me a wonderfully memorable experience I shall never forget.

A notice from the School advised me that I was to be the recipient of an Honours Tie, an award that recognises significant contributions to the School and the Community.

I was deeply honoured and the day was to be cherished commencing with morning tea with the Headmaster, Chris Moller and his wife Isabel in the Head Masters home. Then we all retired to the Prince Edward Auditorium where 600 guests, including all the students were assembled to receive a small party including the Head Master, Dr Nicholas Grigsby (my sponsor) and the  Head Boy (Todd Innes) and  Girl (Alice Cook). The Head Master welcomed the gathering, the  Head Boy and Girl read the Citation and Dr Grigsby spoke eloquently (and generously) of the things I do (or have done) in my life. I responded.

Following these formalities the entire auditorium emptied while the Head Master and I waited back. We were then ushered out of the auditorium and onto the drive where all the students had assembled and performed a wonderful School Haka. It was both beautiful and spine tingling. Such energy and passion with a fine Maori student moving between the rows of students a giving the ‘calls’. Amazing! How could I possibly have deserved such a wonderful occasion. Bravo Collegiate School.

In the afternoon I adjudicated the House Music, another great experience.

Having members of my immediate family as guests was greatly appreciated; Roderick (Old Boy, Head Prefect, Captain of Rowing and Rugby), Alison, (Solway Old Girl) Matthew, (Old Boy, Hadfield, Quad Rower won secondary Schools tournament, First Fifteen last team to win the Quadrangular Tournament, president of the School Screen Printing Club), and Matthew’s daughter Fredrika).


Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Memorable Visit

During the 2014 New Zealand Opera School, the Wanganui Opera Week Committee organised a visit to the historic and beautiful Putiki Marae on the banks of the Whanganui River. The marae is hundreds of years old and dates from the earliest times of Maori habitation when this area was where upriver Maori landed and smoked their fishing hauls from across the bar of the river before heading upriver to the 'fighting pas' with their catches. We were afforded a full welcome with the traditional challenge, speeches and waiata (songs) from both sides. Elder John Maihi was our guide for the ceremony.

For me, it was a journey of memories, for 51 years earlier I went to the marae and knocked on the door of a wonderful kuia who lived in a house that front onto the grassed meeting area. I was greeted by a beautiful senior woman, immaculately attired, who asked me what I wanted. "I wondered if you, Mrs Takarangi, could teach me some haka?"

I explained that I had been appointed the Officer in Charge of 24 boys, selected from all over New Zealand as representatives of The Boys' Brigade to travel to Scotland to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Brigade in that country, and we needed something NZ to take to that event. Today, it seems ludicrous that a team of NZ Europeans should be taking Maori culture to the other side of the world.

Mrs Takarangi, with true Maori graciousness, agreed and for the next year I attended regular lessons. When she thought I was proficient enough, she took me to the kitchen to say goodbye to Mrs Ngatoa, a 93 year-old aunt who sat cross-legged on the floor weaving flax. Upon arrival for my lessons, I had always visited the kitchen and greeted Mrs Ngatoa, who spoke very little English. On this final occasion, she presented me with 25 woven flax head bands – one for each member of the contingent – and, for me, a woven flax kite, which I still have. (You can see it in my hands in the accompanying photo.) I went on to teach the haka to the boys during our journey to Scotland on the P&O ocean liner Canberra

The visit to the marae and the magnificent Maori church of St Paul, as well as the entertainment and the meal, made this an occasion to be remembered and cherished. Thank you Wanganui Opera Week for arranging this visit.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Introducing Jonathan Alver

Following Brian Wyness’ untimely death, I took on the role of Executive Chairman of the NZ Opera School and invited long-time associate and friend Jonathan Alver to replace me as Director. Jonathan accepted this role and experienced his first School fully in that role for the 20th Anniversary year and directed a wonderful 20th anniversary celebration entitled Opera on the River. New Zealand Opera School alumni, including Simon O’Neill (’94/’95 and ’96), gave an 800-strong audience a great night of opera arias and lighter works.

Jonathan Alver – Director 
Jonathan Alver has more than twenty five years of experience writing, directing and producing operatic, theatrical and screen work in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Europe and the United States.

After graduating in vocal studies (baritone) at the Royal Northern College of Music, Jonathan turned his attention to directing, with early UK productions including: Tosca, Boris Godunov, Madama Butterfly and Showboat at the London Palladium. In the late 90’s Jonathan became General Director of Opera New Zealand (subsequently NBR NZ Opera), directing Faust, Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lammermoor, Gianni Schicchi, The Spanish Hour, Macbeth, La Boheme, Falstaff and Aida. Lucia and Macbeth were subsequently sold to Los Angeles Opera and Minnesota Opera respectively, with Jonathan invited to the US to direct those productions. 

In 2002, Jonathan moved away from opera to form the theatrical production company Volcanic Island. Productions included: a New Zealand tours of Mum’s The Word and Then Comes Love, a UK tour of Being Victor Borge, and Jailhouse Rock - The Musical at the Piccadilly Theatre in London’s West End.

In early 2007, after 20 years in opera and stage production, Jonathan returned to New Zealand to concentrate on screen production. He became a director on Shortland Street and Go Girls, with over 120 hours of screen time under his belt.  

From 2012, Jonathan has returned his focus to the stage, becoming the Artistic Director of the National Youth Theatre Company with productions of Joseph, Pinocchio and Grease, and becoming Director of the NZ Opera School. Other recent projects include: director for Annabel Langbein Live at the Frankfurt Bookfair, joint creative director of the Wynyard Christmas Quarter, and producing and directing three productions for the 2013 Auckland Arts Festival. He also has a number of film treatments and screenplays in development.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


First published in the Wanganui Collegiate School periodical 'The Bulletin' in June 2012.

The years beyond the halls of St Georges and Wanganui Collegiate were marked by memories and indeed the inspiration of School life from some fine headmasters and teachers who lived for their students and were passionate about the schools and all they stood for. Having set a possible career path in management several years of study were required to come to terms with the challenges of all that word implied.

Following a two year stint with the Shell Oil Company in Wellington’s NZ  head office I applied for and was accepted into a position as trainee manager in a fast growing Wanganui based finance company, the Western Building Society offering excellent plans of compulsory savings and entitlement to apply for home loans. Great institutions of the time and the sort we could well do with now had most of them not gone head-long into becoming banks only to swallowed up by larger and more powerful banks to be swallowed up by yet larger and more powerful banks. I am sure you get the picture.

This was a marvellous opportunity for a young trainee manager and an eventual career that spanned nearly 22 years in the organisation. Back then careers were made and sometimes carried out in the one organisation.

My out of office activities included a couple of years with Wanganui Cricket (I was no good at cricket at school and nothing improved later so gave up to become just a spectator) singing, choral work, considerable involvement in St Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Wanganui as an Elder, lay preacher following three years correspondence study with the Knox Theological Hall in Dunedin, Chairman and Counsellor for Birthright Wanganui, Chairman and Trustee of the Margaret Watt Orphanage, Captain for thirteen years of the First Wanganui Company of the Boys’ Brigade which led to my selection to lead 25 boys from around New Zealand on a four and a half month journey by air, ship and overland around the world to attend a major anniversary of the founding of the Brigade in Scotland. Things like this probably do not happen today but this was an epic journey and a marvellous, unforgettable experience.

Ranging over the entire country in my ultimate capacity of sales manger was a challenging and even inspiring time. Thus cities from Invercargill to Auckland were my regular ‘stamping grounds’ for periods, in the case of Christchurch for up to 2 years. There was a lot of flying around the country and on one occasion it nearly all ended when the private plane in which we were flying had an engine failure and with smoke billowing from under the controls we came down through the thickest fog I have ever seen to crash on the top of a small hill 40kms south of Hamilton. The plane burst into flames and we just escaped with our lives.

I followed this a year later with a near disaster in the racing yacht Quicksilver returning from Fiji when a huge storm dealt us a rogue wave that turned the yacht upside down and, having snapped his lifeline, swept away the helmsman. I have always been grateful for the strength and construction of the Sparkman and Stephens yachts and I am sure this applied to the lost helmsman whom we finally found and rescued about three quarters of an hour later.

By 1977 following three approaches from the Managing Director of the Northern Building Society in Auckland with the promise that if I accepted I would be able to sing opera with the Auckland based company I finally relented and moved to the ‘big smoke’ to join the head office staff as Development Manager. Apart from my work the only additional requirement was, at special finance company conference functions, came the ‘order’ at a certain time in the evening ‘Trott, sing!’

Thus began what has now been thirty four years in Auckland a city I now regard very much as home but I have never lost my interest in or affection for Wanganui, a unique and much under-valued city by those who do not know this historic and culturally vibrant place.

Apart from co-owing a yacht and spending as much time on her as opera rehearsal and performance would allow, much of the spare time and some work time was spent touring the opera productions to towns and cities throughout the North Island. I was appointed chairman of the opera company and combined this with numerous roles in a variety of operas as diverse as The Magic Flute to The Bartered Bride.

During the latter part of the eighties the Aotea Centre was being built and to my mind we needed a new trust and trustees to start a new company to be the resident fully professional opera company in the new venue. This began several years of formation of the new company and the selection of a group of what turned out to be very fine trustees.

More mergers, with Northern merging with the Canterbury Building Society to become the United Building Society and then with the granting of a license from government, becoming the United Bank. My role here was now the National Sponsorship Manager and with an excellent budget much of which was used to position United firmly in the arts sector of the country with, I might say, some rewarding results.

In the late eighties the grand Aotea Centre was taking shape and to me it seemed that to facilitate this new and expensive auditorium we needed a new opera company and a new trust to run it. With the community rallying to raise funds the opera joined in and for three successive operas we donated all the profits to the venture.

It took many months to arrange a new trust deed and a trust of prominent citizens to spearhead the new venture. I was elected chairman and with no money other than the amounts we each personally contributed we went ahead in faith. The first ever opera in the Centre occurred three months after the opening in 1990 and was a great success. The merger with Mercury Opera and appointment of the first General Director occurred at the end of 1991 and added further impetus to the new company. The standard of productions improved greatly and we were making a significant contribution to the cultural life of Auckland.

It was never easy financially but with the support of the QE 11 Arts Council (now Creative New Zealand) and some excellent corporate sponsors such as the ANZ Bank we continued through the years to present some great opera works. In the latter part of the 90’s two of our productions were sold to opera companies in the United States.

Then in 1999 we commenced negotiations with the National Opera of Wellington and Canterbury Opera with a view to there being one major company in New Zealand. The deal was achieved in 2000, but with Canterbury Opera abstaining.

I stepped down from the chairmanship in 1994 and was replaced by Dr Robin Congreve. This enabled me to concentrate on the establishment of the New Zealand Opera School but remained a director of the company, a position I still hold today. The School would bring an international tutor from overseas to be supplemented by other tutors who have had an international career in opera performance to tutor our young aspiring singers.

Wanganui and the Wanganui Collegiate School was the perfect place to position such a school and after 18 years it only gets better. A city well placed geographically and a facility at Collegiate that would in my opinion be without peer. We have greatly enjoyed and been enriched by being located in such beautiful surroundings with facilities that work so well for the opera school. In recent times the support of the WCS Director of Music, Nicholas Grigsby has been an added bonus. The local ANZ Bank granted me an overdraft facility to start the school. The manager looked askance when I advised him why I wanted the OD, but he granted it. It has never been used.

The Dom Post described the school as a two week ‘boot camp’ and indeed such a live-in school is very focused and hard work but it has proven to be the spring board for a number of young aspiring New Zealand opera singers who are now making their way in the demanding and tough world of opera performance. The support we receive from the citizens of Wanganui and from afar, the funding granted by CNZ and other private generous benefactors and the support of Wanganui Opera Week (WOW), our support committee ‘on the ground’, is a testimony to cooperation and working together for the good of the art form of opera.

I am proud of the Opera School with its motto ‘Nihil Tumultus Tantum Opera’ (minimum fuss, maximum work) and equally proud to be able to introduce singers from throughout New Zealand to the excellence of our 158 year old Wanganui Collegiate School with its heritage and tradition. To hear the trained voices of 24 young singers in our beautiful chapel packed with visitors and backed by the Collegiate’s fine pipe organ uplifted in ‘Jerusalem’ and other great works is unforgettable.

My life is, daily at the opera office with a myriad of duties not least of which is raising much needed funds for our national company and planning for the 2013 NZ Opera School at Wanganui Collegiate to which I hope to arrive in one of my classic British cars.