First published in the Wanganui Collegiate School periodical 'The Bulletin' in June 2012.
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.
What Donald does (in a voluntary capacity) or has done since arriving in Auckland in 1978:
- Chairman since 1981 of Perkel Opera and the company’s principal bass baritone soloist performing and touring to towns and cities throughout the North Island
- As chairman and by consent of the Members of Perkel Opera Inc, wound up the company in favour of a new company to be the fully professional opera company in Auckland and in the soon to be opened Aotea Centre.
- Spearheaded the founding of the new company and was appointed chairman by the newly assembled trustees in 1989 of the new professional Auckland Opera Company, (later Opera New Zealand and now the NBR New Zealand Opera following the merger with the National Opera of Wellington). Still a Director of the company in 2012 and very actively involved in fundraising for a wide range of requirements for the company and attending general matters, making speeches etc that require the services of a working director.
- Founder/ Director in 1993 of the New Zealand Opera School held every January at the Wanganui Collegiate School, now in its 19th year. Over 400 young budding NZ opera singers have passed through the school. Many are now making their careers in opera houses overseas and also making a great contribution to singing in New Zealand.
- Trustee of the Dame Sister Mary Leo Foundation.
- Trustee of the Auckland University Summer Shakespeare Trust. This involvement spans 16 years.
- Trustee of the Auckland Town Hall Organ Trust charged with overseeing the complete rebuild of the historic instrument and fund raising to assist paying for the work. This seven year project was successfully completed in March 2010 to the complete satisfaction of the Council and the citizens of Auckland. Still a member of the Trust to assist with the care and promotion of New Zealand’s largest musical instrument. This project has been and still is a real joy.
- Trustee of the New Zealand Opera Foundation, the repository of ‘funds for the future’.
- Trustee of the Freemasons Lodge of the Liberal Arts Trust providing assistance to young musicians.
- Vice patron of the City of Auckland and District Pipe Band since 1985.
- Appointed a Justice of the Peace for New Zealand in 2003. General ministerial work.
- Patron of the Wanganui Collegiate School chapel 100th anniversary and chapel/organ refurbishment.
In my business capacity (in Auckland only) with the Northern Building Society/ later United Bank as National Sponsorship Manager I directed a not inconsiderable budget (in excess of one million dollars) into a number of new arts projects such as the commencement of Theatresports in New Zealand, Te Kanikani O te Rangatahi (a new innovative contemporary Maori dance group which was the forerunner of the now Black Grace Dance Company), Development of The United New Zealand Modern Masters (a touring exhibition of contemporary New Zealand works by New Zealand artists of paintings, photography and in time sculptural works, toured to galleries throughout NZ) and a number of other performing arts initiatives. These activities raised the profile of the bank considerably. United was one of the companies giving real support to creative and performing arts.