On and Off is an adventure, charting Auckland's Herculean struggle to keep the flame of opera flickering. With an eye-catching cover, featuring Sir Donald McIntyre as Wagner's phantom captain, Nicholas Tarling tracks three decades of the city's operatic endeavours.

One of our foremost historians, Tarling apologises early on for being "much involved in what happened offstage" but it's precisely this insider's knowledge that adds clout. Bristling intrigues are recounted. History wasn't made only at board meetings - Dame Cath's lunches played a minor but crucial role. The troubled transition from Mercury Theatre to Auckland Opera is edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Paul Person and Cyril Kelleway's Perkel Opera is noted (although much more remains to be said in praise of this valiant band). Janette Heffernan's Opera and Ballet Workshop is mentioned for a Pumphouse season of Ravel and Bartok in 1978, but her mounting of Schoenberg's Erwartung is ignored, as is her brief tenure in the Town Hall Concert Chamber.


A comparison with Adrienne Simpson's Capital Opera: Wellington's Opera Company 1892-1999 is useful, although Simpson does not have such a sprawling saga to relate. She's helped too by a more attractive design, with less brutal line spacing, and copious premium-quality illustrations scattered throughout the text; Tarling's 164 pages are a sea of 10.5-point type, momentarily relieved by two four-page selections of photographs, some of which are indifferently printed.

Tarling's reports on the productions are less revealing than those of Simpson, the bulk being taken from his own reviews. More assiduous scouring of published criticisms would have found some much tougher and more vivid writing than he sometimes calls on.

There's too much quotation of isolated adjectives such as "vibrant" and cliches such as "tower of strength".

There are omissions too: Patricia Wright and Carmel Carroll remain uncommented upon for their leading roles in 1998's La Cenerentola and Raymond Hawthorne's saucy remark about Anthea Moller walking on stage and screaming an obscenity was first noted in Peter Shaw's searching interview with the director in a 1991 edition of Music in New Zealand, not in Adrienne Simpson's 1996 book Opera's Farthest Frontier.

Bearing in mind that this worthy book's audience is not only those "who manage and fund organisations", On and Off could have been more reader-friendly - a wise editor might have questioned a word like "Personenregie" and perhaps suggested a useful check-list of operas discussed with basic production details.

* Dunmore Press, $37