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Opera North - History
Opera North

Our History

Opera North is a voluntary organisation dedicated to providing opportunities for its members to extend their singing abilities.

Pictured: Some of the original members of Opera North

Structured as a Charitable Entity and based in Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, it is managed by a committee responsible for its financial and organisational management. Within its objectives it seeks sponsorship to defray costs and enable ticket prices to be kept to a minimum so that as many people as possible can attend the concerts.

Opera North was established in 1996 by acclaimed opera singer and musical director Joan Kennaway QSM and her equally well known and esteemed husband Richard Kennaway QSM. The Kennaways’ home at Operacado, Glenbervie, provides an ideal spot to hold classical concerts and so the idea of Opera in the Garden was born.

The first concert in 1997 featured a group of 18 singers and guest artists Patricia and Ken Cornish and Roger Creagh, accompanied by Susan Smith. No one knew if they would have an audience apart from family members and costs were kept low “just in case”. The stage was made up of fruit bins loaned by Huanui Orchards and the singers had to “walk a plank” to get up on to this makeshift platform. The old upright piano was on the lawn in front of the stage. It was thought the garden would perhaps hold 300 people. More than 500 attended and Whangarei’s Opera in the Garden was well and truly born.

Ever since the second Saturday in March has seen hundreds of Northlanders flock to Operacado for this annual event.

From 1997 to 2000, Graham Parry compered the annual Opera in the Garden concert until 2001 when Radio NZ’s Peter Fry made his debut and brilliantly compered the show. When Peter finally retired after the 2014 concert, local optician and ex radio announcer Craig Robertson stepped in to perform this role in his own inimitable style. The 10th Anniversary Concert in 2006 featured Helen Medlyn as Guest Artist. In 2008, to celebrate Opera North’s 12th anniversary, His Excellency the Governor General, Sir Anand Satyanand, opened the show and Dame Malvina Major performed as the guest artist (despite being stricken by a cold). For the past three years, local artists have appeared as guests and it is the intention to follow this course if possible. 2017 saw the 21st Anniversary of Opera in the Garden featuring (for the second time) Whangarei-born Kawiti Waetford.

These days, audiences can exceed 1000 and the singers number 60 plus, supported by talented local repetiteurs, Lachie McLean and Clare Henderson.

Past accompanists Margie Paul and Juan Kim continue to be involved with the group. Fruit bins have been replaced by a professionally constructed stage to meet modern Health and Safety requirements and a 21st century sound system is used so that the singers can be heard by all. The weather is usually good, although who can forget 2012 when, with just 3 hours to opening time, the heavens opened. True to the old maxim “the show must go on” and thanks to James Franklin’s and Tim Eves’ prompt organisation, an enormous marquee was hastily acquired and with a great band of helpers, it was rapidly erected to seat the audience of 600.

Even so, some slightly mad stalwarts sat in the rain watching under umbrellas.

Members of Opera North range in age from 7 to 80 and this mix results in the wonderful blend of youthful and mature voices. The singing contingent is supported by a small but dedicated group of people who don’t (or more likely can’t) sing but are pretty good with the keyboard, planning and organising, making things and erecting things.

Since its inception, Opera North has had a strong community focus with members participating in many local concerts as well as its two major concerts Opera in the Garden and Showcase.

The music for Opera North’s concerts is devised and conducted by Joan Kennaway and these concerts, spanning classical opera through to popular musical theatre, continue to bring the beauty of singing to everyone who listens.

Pictured: Finale Falstaff 2009