I am Rhona Fraser, Producer of Opera in a Days Bay Garden.
Since 2005 my family and I have lived at Canna House, 24 Moana Road, Days Bay. Canna House was designed by architect, Hugh Tennent, and is situated in a wonderful old fashioned garden, surrounded by native beech forest.
The idea of producing an Opera in your own garden may seem a ‘tad’ over the top, however I have had a very fortunate musical career and this is a natural response to returning to life in New Zealand. I have a very firm committment to giving New Zealand singers a performance platform in their own country and to contributing to the cultural life of Wellington.
Early in my career, I sang in two seasons at Musica nel Chiostro, Batignano, Italy. An English designer, Adam Pollock, would bring all the elements of an opera production to Italy from England and we would all live together in his rustic, former convent, culminating in a series of performances for an Italian audience. The productions used different parts of the convent, making the most of the unique setting. The Italian audience never arrived until 10pm as they came after dinner, thus performances often went on until one in the morning. Our director, Sara Brodie, has also experienced working at Batignano, and so we have a shared understanding of the power of small scale, intimate opera productions.
Musical performances in the garden sum up my life long aesthetic. Music and nature, beautifully combined to create a higher art. I, like many other New Zealand singers, went overseas to study and sing in Great Britain. Now, having performed with orchestras in many great English country estates and in grand concert Halls, I invite you to enjoy a very New Zealand performance. A New Zealand cast in a garden surrounded by nature in all its glory, with native beech forest framing the open air theatre, under our own southern stars.
Our first opera was The Marriage of Figaro, very appropriate for the garden setting. Cherubino, sung by the young Bianca Andrew, climbed out of the window and jumped in the spa pool. For me Acts 3 and 4 were magical with the sunset back drop and Susannah singing Deh vieni on a garden bench surrounded by foliage. Many say our second opera in 2010 was their favourite, Sara Brodie’s setting of ‘The Journey to Rheims’ at a luxury hotel, made for a bikini clad Corrina ( Amelia Berry) and beauty treatments for the Contessa di Folleville, we had no less than 3 tenors, a very young Jonathan Abernethy cycling up the drive to deliver the letter and Ben Makisi singing the ridiculously high tenor role with complete ease…with no real plot and fantastic solo arias and ensembles we triumphed.
I also like the idea that we are part of a world wide trend to take opera to its audience. We started 2012 with our rapturously received Alcina by Handel, the production so suited the garden with Bryony Williams calling to the heavens for magic and Stephen, luxuriating on the lawn for ‘ Verdi Prati’. The wigged Alcina Chamber Orchestra, shaded by the trees added the ‘glorious’ quality which lifted the experience beyond imagination.
In August we moved into town for ‘Maria Stuarda’, by Donizetti. We enjoyed a perfect winter venue, welcomed by The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, we were able to create ‘Opera in the Basilica ‘. This is a great work, with so many New Zealand connections, just waiting to be performed here. The cast was exceptional, I was hugely supported by Lisa Harper-Brown, Ben Makisi, Matt Landreth, Paul Whelan and of course Clarissa Dunn. Sara Brodie brought Maria Stuarda to life with a small set of props and costumes which all fitted in the back of my car! We were an opera company on the move, with an orchestral reduction of the score by Michael, enabling us to enjoy the fantastic acoustic available at The Cathedral.’ Maria Stuarda’ was given a great review in The Dominion and it is all a testament to the fact that we actually have the ability and the ease of living , in New Zealand, which means we are able to do quite exceptional things without too many logistic hurdles.
2013 began with our acclaimed production of Cosi fan tutte. We increased our orchestra size to 16 players, we set Cosi in the 1950’s, and the total affect proved to be a wonderful show case for our Wellington singers. Our talented Ferrando, Thomas Atkins is now singing at Covent Garden. In December 2013 we produced a new Mozart opera in the garden, L’Oca del Cairo. Michael Vinten prepared the score and libretto from two incomplete Mozart operas and used other Mozart to make a whole new opera. This opera turned out to be a wonderful vehicle for our talented young singers, Oliver Sewell, a tenor who oozed charm and humour on stage, is now studying in the USA, as is the powerful young baritone, Christian Thurston.
Der Rosenkavalier will go down as our most ambitious production ever, I am sure we will never be so bold again. I have always had this rather unfulfilled side to my personality, perhaps it was a result of growing up in rural New Zealand and longing for more experiences….anyway we ventured where very few have had the courage to go… Michael Vinten’s arrangement for a chamber orchestra of sixteen and grand piano was a perfect accompaniment to our chamber version of Strauss’ masterpiece, performed in the round. It was a privilege to sing with Bianca Andrew, a born Octavian, matched so charmingly by Barbara Graham and that incredible bass baritone, James Clayton, who handled the complex and huge role of the Baron, with ease. Sara Brodie gave her all and her vision was complete. The amazing thing about the work that Sara does for us, is that she is at once the Director and designer of the production. I always try to visualise the finished production as we work together but often it isn’t until we are performing that I finally see the brilliance of her conception. Our lives are more complete for having lived and sung the Der Rosenkavalier score, that is what we are here for.
During my rather daunting task of getting publicity for Der Rosenkavalier, so as to sell tickets and pay for the production, I was so fortunate to enjoy an hour long interview with our taonga of radio journalism, Kim Hill. I received messages from all over the world and country, as she reaches so widely on Saturday mornings. Kim asked me to select some music from my life so as to be able to chat about experiences and significant events. I of course mentioned Morgen, by Strauss, as Der Rosenkavalier is also by Strauss, and recalled singing the song with orchestra at Snape Maltings and walking through the fields to the performance. It was as if the process of remembering made me realise that the conductor of that concert had been such a significant part of my musical life. I also sang Morgen at his wedding, arranged for string quartet… anyway musical pieces and friendships are the gold threads in our rich tapestry of life, and it is so wonderful that through the support I have enjoyed with Opera in Days Bay, I am still weaving that tapestry! Here is my link to Howard Moody, our guest continuo player and conductor, for La Calisto and now Agrippina. I was keen to have a conductor able to bring it all together from the harpsichord or organ, as is essential with baroque opera.
Howard is an old friend and colleague whom I first met at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, he, Campbell and I, had a lot of fun together, from the sublime moments of Strauss lieder and Mahler to long bike rides and Marilyn Monroe movies. Even as a young conductor Howard was original in his capacity to initiate musical projects, this was then and is now, very inspiring. It was such a pleasure to have him here working with our wonderful cast of singers and musicians, sharing his formidable talents and enthusiasm with us all. Howard is now busy with his commissions in Europe and for Glyndebourne in October 2016.
February 2017 will be a very busy time at 24 Moana Road, with Handel’s Theodora inside the house and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in the garden. Encouraged by the huge success of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi in the house in August 2016, I want to give Handel’s Theodora the acoustic and intimacy it requires by performing indoors. Both operas are ‘to die for’ favourites of mine, the garden will be a perfect setting for Eugene Onegin. Howard Moody will be here from England. Howard has all the required skills, charms and most importantly, positive energy to prepare and conduct two operas in a short amount of time. I am so pleased to have young super star opera singers like Madison Nonoa singing the lovely Theodora and tenor Filipe Manu singing Septimius and Lensky, they are joined by Katherine McIndoe singing her first Tatyana and Tavis Gravatt, Prince Gremin. Christie Cook, home from Europe will be singing Olga and Eugene Onegin will be sung by Daniel O’Connor, who has also just returned from overseas to Wellington. Both operas have a large chorus element and so I am pleased to be able to welcome some new faces to Days Bay Opera. There has been a great deal of preparation with careful casting, the hiring of orchestral versions and I am delighted to say we have the rights to sing the wonderful David Lloyd-Jones translation of Eugene Onegin, this will enable you to really become involved in this glorious story of young love. Personally, I was a young Tatyana once, growing up in the New Zealand countryside, reading too many romantic novels, I have always understood how it felt for Tatyana on that farm in the Russian Steppes, far from civilisation and reality…. the intensity of feelings of almost ridiculous proportions, are all part of the wonders of the human spirit.
Handel’s Theodora, is a story of love and persecution where faith transcends evil…..human and spiritual desires set to Handel’s glorious tunes, so not to be missed! In recent days the trials of Theodora seem alarmingly topical and timely. Madison Nonoa was triumphant!
Now it is nearly May and our 2 operas for 2017 are behind us. I personally loved the challenge of 2 operas at once! Many audience members came to both. Katherine McIndoe at 22 years old, rose to the challenge and gave a particularly expressive Tatyana. I had been considering her for the role since 2014, so I am so pleased I was right to cast her. Katherine has an intelligence and determination which sets her apart, and despite all of that focus she seems totally at ease with developing a role and delivering it, this is enviable poise.
Filipe Manu sang in both operas, Septimius and Lensky. Filipe is another amazing performer, his tenor voice is beautiful and effortless, but he also brings a passionate masculinity to his roles, which really reaches us all.
Our new star was the gorgeous Madison Nonoa. Madison has a voice in 4 million! I know I have already said that she has a ‘blessed’ quality to her timbre, hearing her sing is like listening to the most rare string instrument. It has been a privilege to introduce her to the role of Theodora, I am sure she will sing many more.
So 2 operas in 8 days may have seemed over the top, but I wanted to make the most of having our maestro Howard Moody here from England and anyway we did it. A special note of thanks to the wonderful chorus in both operas, they formed the structure of Theodora and those choruses are indeed the unforgettable achievement of Handel.
In February 2021 we achieved a blissful window of opportunity and created a gorgeous production of La Sonnambula in the garden, 3 performances miraculously shining between weather and Covid level changes. Elizabeth Mandeno, Natasha Wilson, Andrew Grenon, James Ieolu and myself, with a chorus of young singers were joined by the Days Bay Opera Orchestra, conducted by Mark Carter to bring this operatic gem to the lawn! Reviewed in Opera Magazine (UK) as one of the few productions able to happen in the world!
I am now looking forward to a concert of Stabat Mater by Pergolesi July 21 at 7.30pm, featuring our own Bianca Andrew, now an international opera star and the lovely soprano, Joanna Foote. This is my very favourite type of concert and I encourage you to come and join us. I have the Days Bay Opera Orchestra led by Anne Loeser and musical direction from Douglas Mews on the chamber organ and harpsichord. St Mary of the Angels, Boulcott St, Wellington Central.