Mr McGibbon, (President) , Conference Delegates, ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you for your invitation to open your Conference this morning - it is a pleasure to join with representatives of musical societies, large and small, which have over so many years brought such great pleasure to so many New Zealanders all over the country.
You have to go about with your eyes shut and your ears blocked not to appreciate the vitality of our musical theatre, and the high standards that are reached. I have been very aware of this vitality and the standards that are reached, here in Wellington and in some of the larger centres where I have stayed.
But until I read your annual report, I had no idea of the extent of musical theatre, of the number of societies that there are - 81, in towns and townships right across the land. And obviously this quite extraordinary number - which does not include the big opera companies - represents an incalculable dedication of time and talent: producers, conductors, singers, tutors, technical people, front of house people, secretarial and accounting people, all the people needed to mount a production, and to keep a society going during and between productions. This all represents a wonderful achievement ,and a very important contribution to our community and cultural life.
I am sure the extent of all this is not well appreciated at all. And I wonder if many outside Musical Theatre circles realise what a comparative rarity it is for TV-riddled, cinema-addicted, CD-habituated populations elsewhere, still to support local non-professional live theatre to any degree; including supporting that most challenging of theatrical ventures, the musical.
Because something that's immediately apparent should you ever spend some time in North America, or Europe, is the near obliteration of non-professional "local" theatre. Practically all that remains of any local traditions is performances by schools and universities, including performing arts schools. But of the active participation by people who staged musicals and drama simply for the love of it, and for what they could learn from it, there now seems to be little left.
So New Zealand, perhaps, is becoming that rarity, a country where you still find people who don't always assume that "entertainment" is something you buy, but rather, something which you, yourself, can help make.
That is why it is so heartening to read some of the other facts that are in the conference papers: the Federation had one more affiliated society this year than last; Education Membership has taken a big jump; there are 13 new Corporate Members; and four members in the new Associate category.
But not everything is rosy, I read. In the Zone Reports, there were observations that technical people were being encountered who couldn't seem to enter into the spirit of things and were refusing to participate unless they were paid; that there was some "lack of commitment by people taking on jobs as committee members, cast [and] crew"; and that "there is a dearth of younger people who are dedicated enough to learn," who want instead to "do one show and [to become] stars and go professional."
Mind you, I suppose there's always going to be some ego to put up with, whenever anyone who has the talent to take a big role, feels insecure despite their abilities. It's only natural to feel upset if your talent, at least in someone else's eyes, doesn't match your own high self-opinion.
I'm sure everyone's heard stories about performers who weren't quite as good as they thought they were. There was, for instance, the supposedly-rising young singer who proudly told his New York producer just after he'd arrived to start rehearsals, that during his last show, the producers had insured his voice for some truly astronomical amount. The New York producer, who was sorely disappointed at the quality of the young man's voice, responded quietly, "Really? I wonder what they're doing with the money?"
Of course, there are ways a skilled director can cope with just about anything, or anyone. Sir Thomas Beecham for instance, was once criticised - a dangerous pasttime at the best of times: Sir Thomas was after all the equal of David Lange when it came to thinking of a quick retort - Sir Thomas was once criticised for having allowed the orchestra to dominate the singer. Yes, Sir Thomas said, but that was quite deliberate. I meant to do it. It was in the public interest.
I suppose some of the other concerns I have noted are just signs of the times. The idea of volunteerism is not easy for some to understand in this very materialistic age; and people's lives are so much busier, the demands of work and family often so pressing, that younger people in particular often just do not have the time.
On the other hand, for the most part the performers still being discovered by and finding an outlet in New Zealand musical productions, are a revelation, a revelation of the fact that there is a great pool of talent around this country of ours, often just waiting to be noticed and developed. And as long as those new performers are willing to spend the time and effort to learn from the old hands - the sort of people who are the core of the long term membership of your societies - the outlook for local musical theatre in New Zealand should be secure.
Also in the Conference papers, mention was made of the upgrading and re-opening of some truly grand old theatres: the Napier Civic and the St James Theatres were singled out. And I understand there are likely to be more such venues being brought back into gracious service during the next few years, in different parts of the country. And there are new theatres being opened here and there too- the Bruce Mason Centre in North Shore City, for instance. I have been quite thrilled to have been involved in the festivities surrounding these events. These fine restored and new auditoriums are crying out to be filled with strong attractions, the sort of productions that, for most of New Zealand's history, have been staged by local dramatic and musical theatre groups. There is still plenty of opportunity for your member societies.
And there is a continuing need for them too. The big international shows may draw away some audiences, but we cannot do without the local, community, voluntary organisations.
I trust you have a most successful Conference. And that you enjoy your time together, and in this capital city, itself so vigorous in the performing Arts. It is now my pleasure to declare the Federation's 1998 Annual Conference officially open.