ARTicle Magazine

Five questions for Rhona Fraser

Guy Somerset · 07 February 2017

The woman behind Opera in a Days Bay Garden wants to break down barriers and encourage the audience of the future.

Rhona Fraser

Rhona Fraser, opera producer in a Days Bay garden.

Handel’s Theodora, Saturday 11 February, 7.30pm; Sunday 12 February, 11am; and Thursday 16 February, 7.30pm. Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Wednesday 15, Friday 17 and Sunday 19 February, 7.15pm. All Canna House, Days Bay. Tickets from

When did you look at your garden and think it would be the perfect place to stage operas? And what was it about it that made you think so?

We built this house and landscaped the gardens in 2004, but (bizarrely as it seems to me now) we never thought of it as an outdoor opera set. Even though music has always been a huge part of our lives, we looked on the new lawn as just a great place for our boys to kick a ball and the terrace as a spot in which we could relax at the end of the day and watch the sun go down over Days Bay. A couple of years later, I was singing an outdoor concert and thought: actually the natural acoustic sounds better when I am at home singing in my own garden. The native-forested Eastbourne hills rise steeply behind the house and create a natural sound shell. So then we measured up the lawn and found we could seat a couple of hundred people quite comfortably and with a great view of the action: on the terraces and all around them in the garden. We tried it out first with some recitals for charity. Then in 2010 I decided to take the big plunge and put on fully professional operas. I haven’t looked back since. There is always another exciting project to take on.

You’re staging operas inside the house too now. Afterward do you feel echoes of performances as you go about your day-to-day living?

Our whole house has become a living sound shell, with so many happy memories of past performances, overlaid with the melodies of the shows we are currently putting on. During rehearsals, the back courtyard becomes the cast’s green room. We all sit down together for lunch under the big umbrella and build the ensemble over food. I am always coming across reminders of past shows – not least because some of the props have now become fixtures in the house! The lovely Victorian candelabra that was the centrepiece of my first opera in the house (Bellini’s I Capuleti, staged entirely under candlelight last August) is still hanging in the living room. There is also a lovely sense of continuity, as I have been able to welcome back singers who started with us and have then come back for more. My children have also embraced the yearly takeover of their house for beautiful music and don’t hesitate to join in and help.

You’ll never be able to move, you know? Not unless you include a special clause in the contract ensuring the new owners carry on.

Actually there is quite a tradition of live music at 24 Moana Road. The original owners of the property, the Archibalds (who created the beautiful garden), used to have concerts in the house. So I suppose I have built upon and expanded that tradition. It is certainly true we have put down some deep roots here in Days Bay. But the concept of Opera in a Days Bay Garden is also spreading its wings internationally. We have been fortunate to attract the favourable attention of the major international opera reviews. I take the most pleasure in seeing the careers of the gifted young singers that perform here take off on the international stage. I originally based my project on an outdoor opera in an old convent at Batignano in Tuscany that I sang in as a young opera singer. So Opera in a Days Bay Garden could go on tour. But its home will always be here in beautiful Days Bay.

Madison Nonoa

Lexus Song Quest finalist Madison Nonoa will sing the title role in Handel’s Theodora.

Last year’s Lexus Song Quest finalists are getting a good outing in this summer’s operas.

The Lexus is New Zealand’s premier song competition, so I always follow it closely and am regularly amazed at the stunning talent this country produces. Part of my aim with Opera in a Days Bay Garden is to showcase these singers in the context of fully-staged operas: giving them this experience and also ensuring New Zealand audiences get to hear them before they are whisked away to an international stage. This year I am delighted to have three of the four finalists in my productions. The gorgeous Madison Nonoa will sing the title role in Handel’s Theodora. Filipe Manu (who has an incredible tenor sound and was a hit in our winter production of I Capuleti) will play Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and (because he is really too good for me to let him get away with just one opera!) will also sing Septimius in Theodora. Finally, Tavis Gravatt will play Prince Gremin in Onegin: the guy who actually gets the girl in Tchaikovsky’s tragic love story and also gets to sing an aria that is many people’s personal favourite.

The 40 youth tickets for each performance of Eugene Onegin are a nice touch. Explain the thinking there.

The majority of my cast – principals and chorus – are talented young New Zealanders who have chosen to make opera their career. I want to introduce this fantastic immersive art form to their contemporaries. People can have all sorts of preconceptions about opera. What I have found is that, once I can encourage them to come and experience it, they are converted! The formula here is definitely fresh and informal. By taking opera out of the opera house and into a garden, where you can picnic under the trees beforehand, I aim to break down the barriers. Here the opera happens all around you. It is sung in English and the action is up close and personal. I am delighted to make an investment in encouraging the audience of the future, as well as making sure the cast can play to their own crowd.

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Guy Somerset was the founding editor of ARTicle Magazine. He is a former Books & Culture Editor of NZ Listener and Books Editor of The Dominion Post.

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