Brass Poppies

Brass Poppies

Music by Ross Harris, Libretto by Vincent O’Sullivan

Friday 4 March 2016, Shed 6, Wellington, New Zealand Festival

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs


The collaboration of composer Ross Harris and poet Vincent O’Sullivan is quite remarkable. Each of them are ‘maestros’ and their partnership is a weave of pre-eminent talent. Since 2002, they have written 11 compositions – song cycles, operas and a symphony. This chamber opera reflects the tragic fate of the Wellington Battalion, led by Colonel Malone, of  the ruinous Gallipoli campaign and the consequence of their families and loved ones in New Zealand. The opera features four couples – before, during and after the battle in New Zealand, Gallipoli and the aftermath.

I recently read of Colonel Malone in Gallipoli: the Scale of Our War at Te Papa and the The Great War Exhibition, housed in the historic Dominion Museum in Wellington. It was inspirational and I deeply admire him. He was a remarkable person.

Ross and Vincent were aided and abetted. The production was a mammoth effort from a extraordinary range of talent – directors, choreographers, lighting designers, technical wizs and, of course, the musicians.  I can say that the production was superb. The staging, the lighting, the direction, the special effects (four vertical screens that presented myriad backdrop and affective imagery), the costumery … all was magnificent. But, for me, the music and the musicians performance, stole the show. All of the company – the singers, instrumentalists, conductor, dancers – were demonstrably committed to the production, and their intensity was palpable from the first note to the last.

The 10-member chamber orchestra was Stroma, a flexible New Music Ensemble based in Wellington and drawing on principal players with the NZSO and other professional instrumentalists. As usual, they were ably conducted by Hamish McKeich. They were outstanding! Vesa-Matti Leppanen, violin, and Patrick Barry, clarinet, were particularly fine – effortless and lyrical in some demanding writing.

The voices were marvelous too. They were perfectly matched and the ensemble singing was splendid. In the arias – solos, duos, trios, quartets – they were particularly fine, especially James Egglestone (Colonel Malone), Anna Leese (Mary), Madison Nonoa (Joyce) and Wade Kernot (Fred). Wade, in his first aria, was magnificent – resonant and powerful. James, tenor, was impressive and inspiring – as his historical counterpart was too – but tender and moving in his arias with his wife.

Ross is a master of re-contextualising music in a different and surprising way. When Colonel Malone (James Egglestone) declared that “What we can remember…”, he invites his battalion to a dance with their loved ones. Ross produced a lilting, waltz-like melody that was completely new, not recycled. A brass band played, but not any music you could recognise.

Vincent took a new turn of the ANZAC story – somewhat subversive and challenging, but a undeniable point of view. Ross was subtle and direct in his compositional interpretation. A Red-White-and-Blue Patriot (Andrew Glover) took a role of trumpeting the flag-waving marchers seen in our ANZAC Day parades, bombastic and his declamations. “Hope and Glory! King and Country!”  The ‘glorious dead’ commented that “The King was in his counting house” and Fred (Wade Kernot) dryly says: “I’m still dead!

It was a intense experience, and it will stay with me for a long, long time.

A friend generously gave my wife and I the tickets. We were sitting beside her and as the opera finished she remarked that Colonel Malone was her great-great-grandfather. That is the point, I think. Her forefather – all the ANZAC ‘glorious dead’ – have created our country’s ethos. ANZAC maybe a myth, and they are still dead, but their spirit lives on in their descendants.

The dead never leave us.



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