The New Zealand doctor widely considered to be the father of plastic surgery will be honoured with a new home-grown classical composition.

Along with fellow Kiwis Archibald McIndoe and Rainsford Mowlem, Harold Gillies worked in WWI and II developing and refining then revolutionary surgical techniques to repair facial injuries and help disfigured soldiers return to civilian life.

Face is the latest collaboration between composer Ross Harris and poet Vincent O'Sullivan and will be performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra on Thursday .

It examines the effects of WWI, particularly the physical damage done to returned soldiers, and pays tribute to the work done by Gillies. Appropriately, the Gillies McIndoe Foundation is among the work's sponsors.

"Face is not for the dead but for war survivors," says Harris. "It was an opportunity to create a work about what happens after the war, with someone who is seriously damaged."

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In a first for the composer, Face is a co-commission between the APO and the London-based BBC Symphony Orchestra ppossibly because of the impact Gillies' work had in Britain.

"I've never had anything performed by the BBC Symphony before. It's relatively unusual for a New Zealander to be given that privilege. The BBC Singers are the choir doing it in London and they are incredibly good."

For the NZ world premiere, award-winning Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, led by Dr Karen Grylls, performs. The music is large in scale, using a full orchestra, a choir and three solo singers, who represent a soldier, his fiancee and a surgeon. Bass-baritone Joel Amosa plays the surgeon; the fiancee is sung by the leading Australian soprano Allison Bell and tenor Henry Choo, best known here for his 2017 performance in the world premiere of The Bone Feeder, portrays the soldier.

Composer Ross Harris' new music pays tribute to famed NZ plastic surgeon Dr Harold Gillies.
Composer Ross Harris' new music pays tribute to famed NZ plastic surgeon Dr Harold Gillies.

Gillies' work started in Britain and made a huge impact there. Born in in Dunedin in 1882, he had completed training as an ear, nose and throat specialist in England when WWI broke out. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and, having observed French doctor Hippolyte Morestin in the field, persuaded British army authorities to set up a special facial injury unit at the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot.

The unit outgrew those premises, moving to a new 1000-bed hospital devoted to repairs of facial injuries. In all, more than 11,000 operations where performed on more than 5000 men. Most were soldiers whose faces were damaged, usually because of gunshot wounds and burns.

Gillies' innovations included the development of multidisciplinary medical teams making sure, for example, a dental surgeon was part of the team during facial surgery, and encouraging the finding of other ways to anaesthetise a patient that did not involve putting a mask over the face.

Honoured by governments around the world, he was knighted in 1930 and, in WWII, called upon by the British Government to organise plastic surgery units across Britain where doctors from around the world, including NZ, were trained. After WWII, Gillies turned his attention to gender reassignment surgery and performed some of the first modern operations. He died in 1960, aged 78, having suffered a blood clot while operating on a patient.

Composer Harris says Face is one of the best and largest-resourced projects he has worked on but describes the music as quite intimate.

"It has very little violence or anger, it's more reflective, it has a memorial quality to it," he says.

While working on ideas for Face, Harris and O'Sullivan learnt that Dunedin artist Barry Cleavin was producing a series of images of soldiers. The pair selected one, and passed it to video artist Tim Gruchy, who has manipulated Cleavin's artwork to match the music.

"It was difficult for Tim, because we didn't want visuals that would be too flashy and draw attention away from the words and music," says Harris. "It's very easy for the visual side to take over, so we're hoping this will be something people watch, but maybe not always watch; it will be part of the character of the piece."

Harris and O'Sullivan's partnership has been one of NZ's most fruitful artistic collaborations of recent years. Since 2003, they have produced 13 pieces of music, including Requiem for the Fallen (2014) and the acclaimed opera Brass Poppies (2016), which also commemorate WWI.

- additional reporting Dionne Christian

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