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International opera scholar honoured

25 September 2006

International opera scholar honoured

Internationally recognised opera historian, writer and librettist, Jeremy Commons, is to receive an honorary doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington.

Mr Commons, who is world renowned for his research into Italian nineteenth-century opera, and has worked with operatic greats such as Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, is to receive an honorary Doctor of Literature degree at Victoria’s December Graduation ceremonies.

Mr Commons holds three Master’s degrees: an MA in English Literature from the University of New Zealand (Auckland University College); an MA in English Literature from Oxford University and an MA in Italian from Victoria University, where he retired as a Reader in English Literature in 1988. Prior to joining Victoria in 1967, he worked for the then Department of External Affairs, with postings at New Zealand’s Embassy in Paris and the High Commission in London.

His fluency in Italian has allowed him to establish long-lasting connections with archivists in many Italian libraries, where he has spent many years uncovering not only neglected opera composers and their scores, but also collections of their letters and papers, and contemporary accounts and reviews, thus building up an invaluable picture of their lives and productions.

Mr Commons has a remarkable list of publications, with an estimated 1,000 scholarly articles and publications for recordings and opera productions, broadcasts and reviews. His biggest scholarly work is the 1,652 page volume, The First Performances of the Operas of Donizetti in the Contemporary Press, published in Italian in 1997. He is currently preparing for publication a collection of more than 2,000 letters he has deciphered, transcribed and edited that were written by or to the composer Nicola Vaccaj, a contemporary of Rossini and Donizetti, whose singing exercises are used by singers to this day.

His expert knowledge of the repertoire of nineteenth-century Italian and French opera means he has frequently been commissioned for essays, introductions and notes by companies such as the Australian Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Los Angeles Opera and the English National Opera. He has worked closely with leading exponents of Italian opera such as Dame Joan Sutherland and conductor Richard Bonynge on articles to accompany their recordings for Decca International. Since 1975 he has been the major researcher and writer for the London-based company, Opera Rara, which issues award-winning recordings neglected nineteenth-century Italian operas.

He has also rediscovered several “lost” operas, ensuring they are performed again, as well as writing the libretti to 11 chamber operas that have been set to music by New Zealand composers John Drummond, Dorothy Buchanan and Anthony Ritchie. He has also been a successful impresario, staging not only most of these works but nine little-known French and Italian operas as well. This has provided young and established New Zealand singers with valuable opportunities to perform chamber operas to a high level of sophistication, thereby making a significant contribution to the depth of New Zealand’s operatic talent.

Mr Commons has also contributed to New Zealand opera as President of the New Zealand Opera Society (1981-88) and Editor of Opera News (1985-89). He remains a Patron of the Society, along with the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Helen Clark.

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Pat Walsh, said as an alumnus and former staff member, Mr Commons’ achievements had brought enormous credit to Victoria University.

“Jeremy was known as one of the best lecturers in English and music at Victoria and was not only highly organised but infectiously enthusiastic for his subject matter and his students. Both in his working career and even more so since his retirement, he has brought his skills as a communicator and creative and critical thinker to bear in his passion for opera, with critically acclaimed publications that are a fine example of detailed scholarship based on first-hand and often unique knowledge of archival sources.

“But he has not only been a researcher of matters operatic, but also a practical exponent, staging operas and writing the libretti that have given New Zealand’s emerging singers an unrivalled opportunity to perform nineteenth century and modern operatic works.

“Instead of lamenting a lack of chamber operas or being daunted by the enormity of transcribing and editing thousands of letters and reviews, Jeremy has set to work and the operatic world stands in awe of the research he has done.”


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