Wives and families at home are as much to the fore as men in uniform at the front, in an innovative depiction of the 1915 battle of Chunuk Bair. Glory Days contributor Clarissa Dunn interviewed Jonathan Alver ahead of the Festival to find out the story behind Brass Poppies.
Jonathan has more than 25 years’ experience in theatrical, screen and major event production both in NZ and overseas. He’s been the General Director of Opera NZ, has directed episodes of Shortland Street and Go Girls, and more recently was in charge of the creative direction of the ICC Cricket World Cup Opening Ceremony in Christchurch.
1. Jonathan, what is the story of Brass Poppies?
On a very basic level Brass Poppies tells the story of the Wellington Regiment and their leader William Malone as together they face the traumatic events around the battle for Chunuk Bair. However, this is not a narrative commemoration, rather a series of imagined snapshots, demonstrating how the soldiers, wives and lovers might have felt in this situation.
2. How does this story suit opera?
Opera was not created to teach us history. Instead, the exquisite conjunction of music, stage and voice brings characters to life, connecting us directly to the human condition, to the hearts of the personalities before us, allowing us to share their thoughts and feelings. In Brass Poppies, Ross and Vincent have reflected on one of the darkest days in New Zealand history, but in so doing they have put flesh on the dry bones of some of the real and imagined personalities involved, literally giving them a voice.
3. Are the characters based on real people?
Yes and no. William Malone was indeed the Colonel of the regiment, but Vincent has brought him to life, and put words in his mouth, through his imagination. Malone’s wife is also a named character in the opera. The other people on stage all represent ordinary New Zealanders, forced to face up to a series of events no one could have imagined.
4. The centenary of the First World War inspired a huge artistic response. Brass Poppies is billed as offering a fresh perspective. What is that perspective?
From the inside! We invite the audience of Brass Poppies to step inside the personal experiences of the characters on stage, not through the filter of sepia photographs, but in the full colour of everyday life. What would those that died in the battle tell us? Most importantly to never let a similar situation happen again.
5. What effect has the music of Brass Poppies had on your direction of the opera?
As an opera director you have to start with the music. The words tell a story, but the music heightens and details the emotions. Ross has found a musical style for Brass Poppies that suggests the period, with interesting choice of instrumentation, but is also contemporary allowing us to engage as we would with a movie. My job is to add the visuals to the soundtrack – simple!
Glory Days has a double pass to give away to the Auckland performance on Friday 11 March, 8pm. To enter the draw please fill your details in below before 8pm on Tuesday the 1st March.