21 Jan 2012

'Father of NZ opera' dies, aged 99

3:20 pm on 21 January 2012

The man described as the father of opera in New Zealand, Donald Munro, has died, aged 99.

Born in Mosgiel in 1913 and educated at Otago Boys' High School, his career began in 1938 when he performed as a baritone singer, before travelling to wartime London to study at the Royal College of Music.

He spent four years there, winning the prestigious Tagore awarded to outstanding students, and then went to Paris to study with the distinguished baritone Pierre Bernac.

He joined the Sadlers Wells Opera in 1942 and developed a considerable reputation as a lieder singer but in 1951 he decided to return to New Zealand for family reasons.

In 1954 he established this country's first opera company, after singing in a production of La Serva Padrone which successfully toured the North Island, saying his primary goal was to take opera to the people.

The opera company averaged a rate of three productions a year and within five years had graduated from operettas in the Wellington Concert Chamber to major three-act classical operas staged in the Opera House.

Mr Munro gave up singing roles in 1962 to concentrate on being the company's artistic director and was the first person to produce Gershwin's Porgy and Bess outside the United States. He gave the young Kiri Te Kanawa her first professional engagement.

Mr Munro received an MBE for services to opera in 1960 and was named a New Zealand Arts Icon in 2005.

In 1967, he took a lectureship at the University of Adelaide, becoming Dean of Music in 1974. He held the post for four years and served on various Australian government arts funding bodies.

He died in Willunga, South Australia.