Dance Review
OrphEus – a dance opera

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The entire company dances with great strength and rapport in OrphEus.
(Photo credit: John McDermott)

OrphEus – a dance opera
by Michael Parameter with The New Zealand Dance Company
Civic Theatre, Auckland
Auckland Arts Festival

Reviewed by Joan & Mike Street


A chance encounter at the Yellow House resulted in a wonderful experience for us on a trip to Auckland recently. As Joan was leaving the cafe, she was hailed by the doyen of Whanganui Opera Week, Donald Trott. Their conversation turned to matters musical, and when Joan mentioned that we were soon to spend a couple of days at the Auckland Festival of the Arts, Donald asked if she had ever visited the organ in the Town Hall. He explained that the instrument, which had been made in Germany and installed in 2010, was rated among the best in the world. Would we like him to arrange a ‘tour’ for us? His offer was gratefully accepted and, at noon on a wet and windy Monday, we were effusively welcomed at the stage door by Kerry Stevens, for many years the voice of the Concert Programme. As we ascended the steps on to the stage, Kerry told us we were treading in the footsteps of Dame Kiri te Kanawa, the Beatles, Louis Armstrong and many other illustrious musicians.

Although we had sat in the hall last year for a performance of Awa, a vibrant piece of Maori theatre, I had not fully grasped the grandeur of the building. This time, standing high on the lofty stage, the vast hall devoid of seating, I could better appreciate its architectural splendour. According to Kerry, one famous conductor instructed his orchestra, prior to playing the first notes, to look round and take in the size and beauty of one of the world’s finest concert halls. Kerry then launched into a history of the organ, which was made in Norwich by Norman and Beard and installed in time for the official opening of the Town Hall in 1911. During the 1960s a wave of change swept through New Zealand, with committees in different cities debating what could be done to ‘bring the organs up to date’. As a result, the Auckland organ was refurbished by a local firm, the inaugural recital taking place in May 1971. Over the years, however, it became clear that there was one important deficiency in the instrument, namely that it was not loud enough. Since the Town Hall itself was restored , in 1994-97, to its previous ‘Edwardian grandeur’, the city organist, Dr John Wells (music teacher at Collegiate in the early 1970s), began a campaign to have the organ also restored to its previous condition. The Auckland Town Hall Organ Trust was formed, Donald Trott being one of the seven members. Their case was successfully argued, thus beginning a long and arduous process of fundraising and organisation which eventuated in the installation of the Klais organ in 2010.

Sitting at the keyboard of this magnificent instrument, Kerry demonstrated its capacity, taking us through the six different organs — swell, pedal, choir, etc. Following on from there, he took us inside the organ — literally! — so that I then understood that the word ‘tour’ had been carefully chosen by Donald. It is the only organ in New Zealand, and possibly in the world, said Kerry, where one can walk around the internal components. It is on three levels, with beautifully fashioned staircases and balustrades of oak, and narrow boardwalks between the various sections of pipes. The latter were astonishing in themselves, the largest being almost 10 metres high, others very slim, just a few centimetres in height. In all there are 5291 pipes, about 20 per cent of which were restored from the 1911 organ. The majority are made from an alloy of tin and lead, the rest from zinc or wood. Stepping carefully through the intricate layout was quite thrilling, and also moving, particularly when a wooden plaque pinned to a door was pointed out to us. It stated that it was the last work day of Stefan Hilgendorf, the chief designer of the organ, who was retiring after 52 years of working for Klais. What a way to bring a career to an end. It added such a personal and sentimental touch.

One special addition, which makes this organ unique, is that it is the first in the world to represent the sound of Maori musical instruments. The idea originated with Dr Wells, who felt that some uniquely New Zealand sounds should be incorporated into such a magnificent creation. Consultation with a Maori instrument specialist, Richard Nunns, resulted in the selection of the ‘koauau’ (flute) and ‘pukaea’ (trumpet) as most suitable. The koauau’s stone or bone is replaced by scientific glass, the hardest known, and the hollowed-out wood of the pukaea is mirrored in the organ version. Both greatly enhance this remarkable piece of work.
As we returned to the keyboard, Kerry played for us, the delicate and the thunderous sounds, as he demonstrated its magnificence. Our ‘tour’ was so special and meaningful for the two of us, and we would like to offer our grateful thanks to both Kerry Stevens and Donald Trott for providing this opportunity.

JOAN: Beware! Genius at work! A birthday present from my daughter took Mike and me up to Auckland during the Auckland Festival. She had bought me a ticket to see Michael Parmenter’s new creation, a Dance-Opera named OrphEus. This was its world premiere at the Civic Theatre. We had comfy, red plush seats only four rows from the front. As the heavy, red curtain was raised we were witness to the huge size of the stage as, stripped of any scenery, we could see rigging, walls, costume racks and all the paraphernalia of backstage. As the lights dimmed, the stage was now surrounded by high ‘blacks’ with an area like a large picture frame at ground level and lit to expose the baroque ensemble which would play throughout, giving a gentle theme of music from the court of Louis X1V. This was to accompany the stunning dancing and overwhelmingly beautiful singing of the soloists. The four singers sang together or alone, at the back or total front of the stage, thrilling in their ability and the haunting sound that they produced to reflect the wonderful tales to be told of Orpheus, his birth, adventures and his eventual loss of Eurydice, his beautiful and beloved wife, whom he ventured into Hades to save from death but lost when he disobeyed the instruction not to turn back and look at her.

Michael Parmenter is a supreme artist of dance. I have followed his career and watched him perform. He has spent a long period, creating this work through study and his own creativity. Like the Greeks, Michael brought together a chorus of 28 — ex-dancers, lovers of dance and a mixture of ages, ethnicities and gender. The production belongs to the New Zealand Dance Company and their magnificent dancers performed for us the story and the dancing was the most creative and skilful that I have ever witnessed. The three dimensions of music, song and dance coming together, brilliant in their own right yet owing their magnificence to Parmenter’s genius. Carl Torentino and Chrissy Kokiri played the doomed lovers. Their interpretation of their love for each other and their loss was almost unbearable to watch. Orpheus and his Argonauts gave us a totally different mood. The birth of Orpheus was astounding as his mother, played by Lucy Marinkovich, danced out her labour then dropped a full-grown Orpheus from beneath her skirts — amazing.

As we stood to give the cast a standing ovation, we both used together the word ‘indescribable’ to sum up the greatest dance work that we had ever seen. What an honour to be present. This is world-class. It must travel around the world to share its brilliance and let others see what New Zealand can offer.

JOAN: After a full career as policeman, lawyer and MP, Chester Borrows is no cynic. I listened to his address to a group discussing penal reform at the Quaker Settlement last weekend and was both heartened and relieved at what he had learnt and was willing to share with us. He is passionate in his views and the need to improve the way we handle those who come into contact with the law and Corrections. He was inspiring and promised to dedicate his time, his knowledge and his connections to make a difference. An honest and worthy person indeed.

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