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Newcomers with big ideas, bold attitudes and some pretty brazen opinions about our arts scene are making Hawke’s Bay home. And in so doing they’re waking us up to the potential to make more of what we have, and to explore new ways of doing.
Anna Pierard of Festival Opera, Andrea Brigden of Hawke’s Bay Youth Theatre and Christine Spring, the new chief executive at the Hawke’s Bay Opera House have all made the conscious choice to settle here, when each could enjoy their pick of places to live and apply their talents.
Two have returned after long absences; one has made a new home for herself here. They are just three of a whole bunch of go-getters growing the arts in Hawke’s Bay with the kind of vim that comes with being new round here.
New fans for opera
Anna Pierard left home having finished her schooling at Sacred Heart in Napier and went to Victoria University, then overseas with the National Youth Choir. She auditioned then trained as an opera singer at Guildhall in London, and then went where the work was, as a mezzo soprano: “Taking my suitcase and buying my own salt and pepper wherever I went.”
At Guildhall she’d met husband, flutist, then tenor and now conductor José Aparicio. They based themselves in Spain. From there they travelled, performing in operas all over Europe, and occasionally came back to visit Pierard’s family in the Bay.
When their first child was born, Pierard and Aparicio moved back here for good, putting down some form of root system although the pull of working abroad was still strong.
“It was really when I became a mother that I realised opera was not something I could take or leave. And that singing was not something I could give up easily, if at all.”
For Pierard, and for Aparicio, music had become a reason for being, and a way of life. Now living in Napier they needed to find ways to ensure their life-blood was still present and vital.
“Opera is a misunderstood art form in terms of its reason for being and its relevance; really it has always been aimed at the populus and should continue to be. Personally I don’t want to be part of the generation that allows opera to be obsolete. My own understanding of the art form is developing and growing and it’s my job to bring people along,” Pierard explains.
Now, Pierard is extending her passion for opera in two distinct directions. Determined to create a viable professional opera company in Hawke’s Bay with the potential to tour, she has established Festival Opera, which will mount its first production – The Marriage of Figaro – as part of Art Deco Weekend 2014. Pierard is focused on creating new fans of opera, enlivening what can be seen as a staid art form, and introducing a fresh relevance that chimes with contemporary audiences.
Hand in hand with this endeavour is Festival Opera’s youth initiative. It has taken 15 young people from across Hawke’s Bay and over the summer will introduce them to the form, then work with them to devise a 15 minute reworking of Figaro.
“The opera comes first and from there we know we need to stimulate younger audiences. There was a realisation that this region has the venues and the people and the support to have a really quality product, in terms of an opera company, and every opera company needs a youth initiative.”
From the beginning of the youth project, called Prima Volta, Pierard began to tap into the very real issues facing young people in Hawke’s Bay. A world away from the glitz of Europe’s opera houses, the startling stats around youth and suicide, violence, lack of work and training opportunities stimulated a response in Pierard.
“Opera is what I know and so it is my avenue for doing what I can to help our youth. But we should all be teachers, we should all be socially responsible and we should all parent beyond our own children.”
Now she is hoping Hawke’s Bay will come on board.
“What I want Hawke’s Bay people to do is to support Hawke’s Bay people who are attempting to help Hawke’s Bay people. To make it a circle and complete it, and when that is done to grow that circle and include more people. It’s a type of philanthropy of spirit: to know that your own children are fine and to begin looking at what others need.”
When asked if Hawke’s Bay is now home, there’s a long pause before she answers.
“If this project opens hearts and minds then yes. We’ve experienced so much here and grown our partnership and our family here. We’re not going to give up easily. Particularly with Project Prima Volta … I personally can’t just step away from that, I can’t give hope then not follow through.”
Another arty-type who is blazing a path for Hawke’s Bay’s youth is Andrea Brigden.
As a young person Brigden left Hawke’s Bay for the UK and now that she’s back, and director of Hawke’s Bay Youth Theatre (HaBYT), it’s primarily the young people she’s here for.
“I left when I was 15, but I always knew I was going to come back here. Hawke’s Bay was always home. So I found myself a husband and brought him with me and he loves it here.”
Brigden now lives in Central Hawke’s Bay and is an essential figure at the newly refurbished Waipawa Municipal Theatre.
“I think there’s quite a lot happening in the arts in Hawke’s Bay and I guess that’s because I seek it out. I look for it and when you’re into the arts it makes itself visible.”
In her role at HaBYT Brigden is charged with igniting a passion for performance in Hawke’s Bay’s youth.
“What I’m aiming to do is not just teach them, but also open up opportunities for them, things they won’t have access to otherwise,” she says.
HaBYT takes young people from 15 to 18 years and gives them skills in acting and theatre arts. Brigden would like the company to grow and to extend its reach to include people in their early twenties, as well as being a pre-entry platform for tertiary education providers in the area of performing arts.
“I don’t want it to be just a bit of fun while they’re at school. Many have an aspiration to work in performing arts and being in a company opens them up to the potential of working in the theatre,” she explains.
Brigden finds giving young people an experience of professional theatre in the Bay can be a struggle, although she is generally optimistic about the arts scene.
“There is a lot of theatre here but to be honest it’s not the kind of stuff they really need to be exposed to. I would like them to see more contemporary New Zealand theatre, stylistically interesting, touring pieces, where there are perhaps opportunities to have workshops with performers and find out about process.”
As with Anna Pierard’s project, creating in young people a thirst for performing arts early on in their lives could be the key to keeping those disciplines alive. Developing audiences now means they’ll demand those art forms from the world later on.
“It’s important because if we didn’t have creativity then we’d die on the inside. Personally, if I’m not being creatively stimulated then I feel stifled. I think that’s the same for everyone.”
For Brigden, an extension of that personal creative need is the need to connect with others working in the arts. Although she admits that from an acting point of view it would sometimes be nice to be in Auckland or in Wellington, she is proud of the community of theatre makers operating in the Bay, but believes more opportunities would be created if those relationships were solidified.
“There is a lot of potential for collaboration here but we need something more that helps facilitate that,” Brigden explains.
“There’s this buzz that happens when you meet someone who also works in the arts – there’s so much going on, but now it’s got to be about connectivity.”
The business of arts
At the far end of the performing arts spectrum stands the Hawke’s Bay Opera House – established, prominent and terribly grown up. Newly appointed chief executive Christine Spring is at the helm.
Never having lived in Hawke’s Bay, and having not been part of a small town community for 30 years, meant it took some time for Spring to acclimate.
“I wanted a base that would allow me to come and go. For me Hawke’s Bay has all the benefits: good food, good wine, sunshine and family.”
Tempted early on in her stay by a job opportunity in Melbourne, Spring made the choice to let that go and instead commit to the Bay and to New Zealand.
“I like the outdoor lifestyle. I like the proximity to family. But I do think it’s a hard community to integrate into. That part has been an interesting experience and not an easy process.”
Spring’s pre-Opera House career includes multiple degrees, a long stint as an airport engineer and numerous high profile positions in international organisations. The Opera House job has brought with it a dose of reality.
“An aspect I’ve learned here is that $500 is important. I’ve worked for so many years on multi-billion dollar projects that this job brings me back down to earth. It’s easy to forget what normal is, so I’ve enjoyed the reality check; it’s been good for me,” Spring explains.
Although the change in career path, from airports to opera houses, may look radical, there are strong parallels.
“Both are large public-use facilities. In both, what’s important is customer service, keeping the toilets clean, commercial nous and good negotiation skills. The core skills are very similar.”
Spring outlines the role of the Opera House has having four foundation principles: to be a hub of culture in Hawke’s Bay, to fully embrace community engagement, to be a venue of corporate excellence and to be financially sustainable. On that point: “We have a mandate from Hastings District Council to lessen our need on Council funding and grants,” says Spring.
“If we want the Opera House to make it as a stand-alone commercial entity we need to use business skills, not artistic ones, so I hired a good manager* to look after the artistic direction and that meant I could work relationships and grow the business.”
Spring is using her newcomer’s view to assess the opportunities and the challenges in the Hawke’s Bay arts community.
“The strengths in Hawke’s Bay are in the passion and commitment of the people. But there are holes. There are aspects that aren’t as cohesive as they could be. Hawke’s Bay is blessed with a large volume of venues and what’s important is how we support each other and how we draw on each other’s strengths.”
Although her background is not in the arts, she is an avid consumer of culture.
“If I was in Melbourne I’d be in jazz clubs on a Sunday night. In Paris I’d seek out obscure and fabulous small art galleries. Abu Dhabi is rich in the variety of events it brings in. But I go and get my big city injection so I’m not hungry for it when I’m here, and a city is what you make it. The Hastings City Art Gallery is fantastic, the MTG is brilliant, I love Hastings’ Night Market. If you always hunger for what you had then you miss out on what you have. You need to enjoy what’s here. And personally, I like being part of the evolution of the arts in the Bay; it’s really very satisfying,” she says.
*Hawke’s Bay boy returned, Glen Pickering has a strong arts background and was hired within three months of Spring’s arrival.