Brendan O’Brien, who has curated the current exhibition at the Turnbull Gallery (first floor, National Library of New Zealand), spoke to a crowded meeting of the Friends of the Turnbull Library on Tuesday 23 September on ‘the art and times of Dame Janet Paul (1919-2004)’. Brendan has just published a limited edition book of her poems and drawings, and his talk – illustrated with images from the collections of the Turnbull Library – drew attention to her artistic talent and flair for design.
After a significant career (with her husband Blackwood Paul) as an innovative publisher and bookseller, Dame Janet became widely recognised as a painter and art historian, as well as a friend and mentor for many artists, writers and especially poets. Brendan noted that she carried a sketchbook everywhere – like a mobile phone today – and many of these sketchbooks are now on display at the Turnbull Gallery.
Having an opera company in the family was an enjoyable experience, but not really a huge advantage when historian Doug Munro set out to research the 17-year span of the New Zealand Opera Company. Doug – younger son of the founder of the company, opera singer Donald Munro – has been driven in part by a sense of urgency in capturing the living memories of some of the participants. Speaking to the Friends of the Turnbull Library on 27 August, Doug entertained his audience with many insights into the background of key figures, the circumstances of the company’s establishment, and – most of all – the ups and downs of precarious funding and turbulent backroom politics which his father always tried to shield his singers from. There is very little of this story on the public record so far; Doug notes that Adrienne Simpson’s 1996 book, Opera’s Farthest Frontier, allocated just 15 pages to the New Zealand Opera Company.
Musical parents (his mother Jean played in the string orchestra) meant that Doug’s early years included vivid memories of singers and musical performances. He also grew up with an awareness that his father’s artistic career needed to be supported by temporary work in wool stores and abattoirs, as well as considerable travel as a singing adjudicator. Looking back now on these years, his research has been frustrated by a lack of company financial details and missing minutes of board meetings, but there is still a wealth of material in the Turnbull collections – including oral history interviews, and scrapbooks of newspaper clippings – and Doug is immensely grateful for the FoTL Research Grant of $10,000 which was given to him in 2013.
A major study of the Opera Company was needed, and Doug’s research has been unravelling and documenting a significant and lively period in New Zealand’s cultural history.