In the mid-60s the Napier Operatic Society members were able to say their Coronation St Tabard Theatre was a full house ... night after night and day after day.

Full of wool bales.

"We got a bit of money for storing wool there, and we needed it," life member Fred Twyford said as he recalled the toughest of times before a financial lifesaver filled another great hall with the sounds of song, and sound of music.

That society lifesaver was staged over a fortnight from August 17, 1968 — 50 years ago.


It was the remarkable The Sound of Music and the Napier Operatic Society was only the second of its kind in the country to stage what was clearly a daunting entertainment project.

Twyford had been asked to be secretary treasurer for the society and said at that time things weren't too active.

"They owed money, which is why they had wool stored in the hall."

But the resolve to turn things around, and get the shows and audiences sparking up again, remained strong.

So they put their hearts (and voices and acting skills) into getting the society back on its feet, although they realised it was risky — very risky.

"We set about getting the rights to perform The Sound of Music and it took us a year to get it all organised."

He said all shows could be a risk to stage - how they would be received and the return - but in the fragile financial state they were in it was risk with as capital "R".

They had a big overdraft for that time and basically owed $2000.

But after the show had run its course over 16 performances at the Municipal Theatre the overdraft dissolved.

"We had a $4000 profit," Twyford said.

One of the local newspaper entertainment critics summed it up when he wrote: "After several quiet years the Napier Operatic Society has emerged again with a big sound — it looks as though it could be a turning point in the society's fortunes."

The journey to standing ovations and terrific reviews began on March 14, 1967.

"I was asked to write to the Hamilton Operatic Society about hiring the scenery," Twyford said.

The Hamilton society had been the first in the country to stage The Sound of Music and had all the right kit, so to speak.

"It took us 18 months to put together," he said, adding that despite the cost and risk there was never any question of pulling back.

"In showbiz you make a decision to go for it and you simply just make sure it works ... and in this case if did."

The word went out to draw in the faces and voices for the cast of 43, and over a week the committee sat through about 190 auditions, including 73 children going for the roles of the seven von Trapp youngsters.

When the 10 principals were chosen there were some well known and respected names.

Like Dawn Unsworth who landed the role of Maria, John Blumsky who took on Captain Georg von Trapp, Hazel Lutman as Mother Abbess and Gillian Davies as Sister Margaretta.

One committee member said at the time it was the most extensive auditions the society had held.

Show producer James Morgan and musical director Cecil Fitzwater made sure they fully combed the region's potential before making the final decisions.

There were two sets of children chosen, to share the shows, and chorus rehearsals began.

One critic said The Sound of Music "stands or falls" on Maria, the postulant at the nearby Nonnberg Abbey. She is sent to the home of Captain von Trapp to be governess for his children — and eventually falls in love with and marries him.

And Unsworth delivered it superbly.

"She is appealing as an actress and captivating with her singing," the review noted.

Unsworth merged into the role seamlessly. She had been in leading roles in several productions in Auckland before returning to Napier to live.

Now 89 and still living in Napier, she said being part of The Sound of Music was "remarkable".

"The most memorable thing for me was the response from the audiences and the huge crowds that arrived for all the shows."

Everyone involved had started out fresh with their roles and excelled.

"It was great fun," she said, adding that for her there was an added bonus during the four to five months of rehearsals.

"I had to get fit because during one scene I had to leapfrog all the children from one side of the stage to the other ... every night."

So she went running, and accordingly became fit and ready for the leapfrogging.

She is looking forward to a 50th anniversary reunion on August 18, and appropriately at the Tabard Theatre.

"Be lovely to catch up again."

Among those attending will be her daughter, Susan, who is flying in from Australia — she played one of the von Trapp children.

Will she break into song perchance?

"Oh no, I don't think I'll break into song on my own ... but if they do start singing then I will join in."

Twyford said, "It was such a milestone in the society's history."

Of about 100 cast and crew involved he had received replies of "we'll be there" from about 40.

The "regeneration" of the society led to it staging a string of acclaimed shows such as Oliver, My Fair Lady, Camelot and Fiddler on the Roof, and the society has been performing strongly since.

Twyford said he had been "roped in" to join the society by its patron the late John Collier, and the association grew from there.

He was 17 years as secretary and five years as president, and is today a life member.

"That means I get to see all the shows and the tickets are free," he said with a laugh.

"And no more hiring the hall out for storing wool bales — we get to do theatre work — that's what it was built for."