Singing of NZ's Gallipoli story

By William Dart

Kiwi opera’s strength lies in it being an incredible domestic piece, Brass Poppies director tells William Dart
Brass Poppies examines the impact of Gallipoli on the soldiers and the families left behind in NZ. Picture / Alexander Turnbull Library
Brass Poppies examines the impact of Gallipoli on the soldiers and the families left behind in NZ. Picture / Alexander Turnbull Library

Next month's production of Ross Harris and Vincent O'Sullivan's opera Brass Poppies, a joint venture between the Auckland Arts Festival, the New Zealand Arts Festival and NZ Opera, is in the assured directorial hands of Jonathan Alver.

Many will remember Alver's productions for our national opera company in the late 1990s, including Faust and a Lucia di Lammermoor that was picked up by Los Angeles Opera. He is currently director of Whanganui's annual New Zealand Opera School.

"Opera was where I started," he says. "I was a good boy soprano who quickly transitioned to baritone at 16. I graduated as a baritone from the Royal Northern College of Music at only 22. And now, spending so much time with young voices, I realise just how stupidly young that was to graduate."

Alver's musical and vocal background is a decided asset.

"Having the music at your fingertips and being able to understand an orchestral score enable you to understand the intentions of the composer and then translate them visually for an audience."

Brass Poppies presents the tragedy of Gallipoli on the domestic New Zealand front as well as in the trenches of Chunuk Bair, as wives and families deal with the pressure of their men fighting on the other side of the world.

For Alver, its strength lies in it being an incredible domestic piece.

"We're all determined that it doesn't come out as a grand commemoration of World War I," he says. "Opera is always at its best when there is a direct line to the heart and the voices tell a story keyed to the emotions as well as presenting a narrative.

"We want to take people back to Wellington 100 years ago, showing the pride of the men and the devastation of the women, never knowing how their partners died."

There will be no razzamatazz, he says, or empty theatrical flair, although it will be colourful.

"The Wellington that the soldiers left back then was just as bright and beautiful as it is now," he says. "Often we remember this period in sepia tones and brown-and-white images make it so much easier for us to distance ourselves."

The presentation of Brass Poppies shows it as very much an ensemble piece, with the 10 instrumentalists of Stroma, including cornet and violin alongside accordion and Middle Eastern doumbek drum on stage throughout, with nine singers and two dancers.

Alver's five years spent working on television programmes such as Shortland Street and Go Girls will also come into play. A series of screens on stage will feature digital footage of the singers alongside what is being performed live.

He gives one example of "a character reading a letter while, on screen, we can watch the reaction of the person who's receiving it. The screens allow us to see what's going on inside these people."

This technology lets him focus within the traditional proscenium arch and "direct the audience on a journey that has been set up; you can even control the close-ups".

Harris and O'Sullivan have "a real sense of theatre," Alver says. "They love the idea that there are so many layers to this piece."

Audiences can also expect to experience flesh-and-blood New Zealanders on stage, from James Egglestone's William Malone to Anna Leese as his wife Mary, "so beautifully open to her feelings in her stunning aria".

Best of all, for Alver, is the evening's crisp 80 minutes' running time. "It's a good length for these times," he says. "I hope the audience will not be limited to opera-lovers, because the story is so powerful, especially in such an intimate theatrical treatment as this."

- Weekend magazine

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