Spending his life in the performing arts has been a rewarding and exciting career for Senior Lecturer John Davies. “I left drama school at the age of 22, and then I just did it for four decades,” he says. “If no one was giving me a job, I made my own work. The area of visual theatre, and masks and dance and music has always been an area of interest for me, so I’ve never stopped exploring it, and I never will.”
Davies’ most recent project, a dramatic ANZAC-themed opera called The Juniper Passion, was composed by his friend Michael Williams, from University of Waikato, with the libretto written by Davies. The opera is set during the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy during World War II. “I wanted to write about the experiences of my parents and that generation,” says Davies. “It’s not about my father, but he was there at the battle of Monte Cassino. He came back and had a good life, but many young men didn’t leave that battlefield.”
The opera begins and ends in New Zealand, and is the story of a Kiwi soldier who died in the battle, but in unusual circumstances involving stolen art, the bombing of the local abbey, an Italian Benedictine monk and a German soldier.
At the invitation of the Colle Ioince Music Foundation, Davies and Williams took The Juniper Passion to Italy in June 2013 for four performances. The first performance was in an ancient Roman amphitheatre on the slopes of the Monte Cassino, actually on the battlefield. “The significance of us going there with this subject matter was huge,” says Davies.
The music was provided by an Italian university orchestra, with an Italian conductor. The singers included one American, an Italian and six New Zealanders. There were also eight dancers, four current Unitec students and four graduates. “One of the significant aspects of this opera is that every character in The Juniper Passion is embodied by a singer and a dancer. At times the life of the character is revealed by a dancer; at other times by the singer.”
For the Italians, the war is still very fresh, says Davies. “The young men who danced these roles are the same age as the men who lie in those graves there. I think that is what the Italians understood. They looked at them dancing, the strength and the vibrancy of them and they said, these are the men that New Zealand sent to help us deal with this fascism, and many of them died. I think that was very profound for them.”
Davies says it has been an honour to be part of such a special project. “This, in many ways, was an ultimate moment for me. It was just the most incredible opportunity, after all these decades of work, and I’m really grateful. It’s what I say to the students here: don’t give up on your work, because it adds up, if you keep doing what you are passionate about, it doesn’t just disappear, it actually grows and adds up to something.”