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Opera Comes to the Mountains of the South Island

Opera Comes to the Mountains of the South Island

An upcoming visit by Australian opera singer, Lucas de Jong and his New Zealand born sister, composer Sarah de Jong, is set to bring more than the hills alive.

Lucas is an internationally respected opera singer based in Melbourne, Australia and later this month he will be performing the NZ premiere of Mountain Songs at two performances; one in Christchurch and another at the Hermitage at Mount Cook.

The music for Mountain Songs was written for him by Sarah, with lyrics penned by her late uncle, Guy Mannering, when Lucas decided to return to Australia to start a family, after nine years in the UK.

“I was so pleased he was coming home that I thought it would be a really good idea to write him a set of songs which were relevant to us both and expressed the power and beauty of the New Zealand alps,” she says.

Sarah has always had a strong connection to mountains. You could say mountains are in her blood. Her grandfather, and Guy Mannering’s father, was George Edward Mannering, a co-founder of the New Zealand Alpine Club and one of New Zealand’s most significant early mountaineers. In the 1890s a fiercely determined George made five attempts to scale Mount Cook’s shard-like summit. Although he never made it, immediately after that fifth attempt he and a fellow adventurer became the first Europeans to canoe the entire length (209 kilometres) of the powerful Waitaki River. A mountain and a glacier have also been named after him.

Guy and Sarah’s two-year collaboration on Mountain Songs was tempered by the knowledge that Guy had cancer. So, while Sarah was writing the music Guy was writing lyrics that had a sense of farewell about them, a sense of leaving, a sense of not returning to the mountains, a sense of regret.

When Mountain Songs debuted at the Castlemaine Arts Festival in March 2003, amongst the low-lying red hills of rural Victoria, Sarah and Guy were overwhelmed by the mixture of excitement and astonishment expressed by audience members who approached them after the concert.

“I heard later that some people who had wanted to come and talk to us didn’t because they didn’t want to break the spell. When I heard that I thought: ‘wow, that really is fantastic.’ I love how strong that feeling is – that Guy and I had been able to make that happen,” Sarah says.

As with the Castlemaine concert, the NZ concerts will feature a multimedia montage of photos taken by George and Guy Mannering, and produced by Sarah’s husband, filmmaker Philip Howe.

Sadly, Guy Mannering died in 2003, several months after the Castlemaine concert. His piano was purchased by The Music Centre in Christchurch which is, coincidentally, the venue for Mountain Songs’ New Zealand premiere on May 26th.


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