Any theatre director will tell you that the past two years have been Covid cataclysmic. So, finding a light at the end of what has been a seemingly endless dark tunnel has been testing. And the earthquake difficulties of our former Opera House have only compounded those locally.
But finally, on July 23rd, the first opera will be performed at Toitoi since the closing of the Opera House in 2013 – The ‘The Cunning Vixen’, directed by John Wilkie.
Hailing from Scotland, John Wilkie, the internationally renowned stage director calls Hawke’s Bay his ‘second home’. He would say that for him being appointed the principal stage director for Festival Opera is undoubtedly the spark he had been seeking whilst wading through those challenging times.
During those years he has been collaborating on Festival Opera’s unique model of incorporating members of Project Prima Volta and PPV Jnr into the staging of their productions. It is a facet of direction very close to his heart.
His stage background is rich. It includes the Royal Opera House, Scottish Opera, Danish National Opera and Opera Holland Park for which his 2019 production of ‘Il segreto di Susanna’ was nominated for Best Production at the International Opera Awards in 2020. All that as well as founding with two friends, his own company, Opera Bohemia in 2010 in Scotland. It marries all the disciplines he so enjoys about opera, his passion – singing, orchestration, acting, movement and design.
Having first stepped on the stage as an actor, he soon found its specific demands for him incited too much anxiety. A directorial role provided the answer. Bestowed, at a very early stage, by friends “who had the belief in my ability”. It was for Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’ – no minor opera. And its success also gave him an insight into the fact that “Directors are actually facilitators; providing the guidance that allows groups and individuals to explore whilst being given the assistance and support to be the best storytellers they can be.”
“I come from a highly creative family – my mother was a drama teacher; my father was an artist. I played the cello, accordion, and piano. My music collection is expansive. So, an involvement with the arts was a natural calling.” Specifically, through opera which he regards as the perfect art form – “I see it as being for everyone. It marries so many elements – singing, orchestration, narration, acting, dancing, costume, lighting design – there is truly something in it for all.”
“But Festival Opera,” says John, “takes it further. It is a recognition of the art form as a tool – not just the plaudits and performance – but the fact it plays such a vital role in the development of the young – building a range of social, interpersonal and confidence skills. This is what Festival Opera does through the fantastic PPV initiative – a project which recognizes the fact that music can empower everyone in any walk of life. It also helps counter loneliness, isolation, and poor mental health.
“I have worked across the world – but before my involvement in Hawke’s Bay, only visited NZ once – so I was not quite prepared for what I was to experience. A minefield of raw talent unlike anything I had encountered.”
He first met Anna Pierard and Jose Aparicio (partners who initiated PPV) in London when they were endeavouring to persuade the brilliant director, Martin Lloyd Evans, to come to New Zealand. Martin was not available, but he suggested they meet with John. The rest, as they say, is history. He had an immediate affinity with the philosophy behind their work. In August 2106 he flew to Hawke’s Bay to take on ‘La Traviata’.
He has now returned to Aotearoa for the fourth time – to direct ‘The Cunning little Vixen’ (in between he has seen the staging of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliani known as ‘Cav/Pag’), with ‘The Magic Flute’ originally planned for 2021 now scheduled to follow Vixen.
‘The Vixen’ itself is a favourite among performers and producers of opera with its music inspired by Czech folk tradition, plus comedic and philosophical elements. And it’s a personal favourite for John. “It is one of the most important operas to exist, the way it deals with the relationship between humans and nature, comedy blended with tragedy, and a touching philosophical reflection of life and death. Not forgetting Janacek’s wonderfully exuberant music with rhythms which capture the joy, fear, thrills, and sorrows of our existence. The blending of humans and animal characters makes it accessible for all ages.” Charming yet complex.
He also says it is perfect for students because they can easily relate to it. “How we interact – the brutality and ferociousness along with the code of life; the physicality of these animals is incredibly relevant; and the music is so completely evocative it almost paints a canvas with which characters can relate. Having the orchestra on stage challenges the balance with the performers sometimes being in front of the conductor – the grasshoppers and the crickets even play the violins.”
It was an opera Jose pushed for and for which John was hugely supportive. “Each year has allowed us to develop a relationship of confidence – not only between Jose and myself but also with Erin Lally who is an incredible costume designer, Miriam Emerson backstage, Sarah (Walmsley – a founding member) and Anna – with all of them I have the most wonderful affinity.”
In John’s mind the new Opera House is the perfect venue. “It has great acoustics; it is wonderfully intimate and is one of the most beautiful opera houses I have come across – perfectly designed for both operatic and music productions. The extra unique quality is that it provides the community with a different take on the ways in which opera delivers value.
“Plus, it provides PPV students the opportunity to experience a professional opera production through working with world-class singers, creatives, and technical teams allowing them an introduction to a professional world in a safe, caring environment. My own opportunity to experience this firsthand is quite simply – inspirational.”
On July 23 at 7p.m. this semi-staged operatic fable will showcase over 130 performers onstage, including the Hawke’s Bay Orchestra players and a lively chorus of woodland creatures sung by Project Prima Volta Senior and Project Prima Volta Junior students. For tickets go to www.hbaf.co.nz