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Portrait of a Marriage – How NZ Opera Met ‘Watch this Space’

Dr. Reuben Woods.

At Watch This Space we receive an array of interesting emails, but it was a surprise to see an email from the New Zealand Opera arrive in our inbox in March last year. NZO’s Ali Davies was reaching out to see if we could help her bring a mural idea to life. Ali was seeking a wall for a mural in support of the upcoming production of Mozart’s and Da Pont’s The Marriage of Figaro, which would include a run at our own iconic Isaac Theatre Royal.


image Image courtesy: Watch This Space

Although performing in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, our city’s existing reputation as a ‘street art destination’, made Ōtautahi a perfect fit for this unique part of the production’s promotion. The mural was a great opportunity to connect the worlds of urban art and the performing arts, hopefully creating a synergy that could be explored further.

After a scouting mission around the theatre’s surrounding environment, we proposed a selection of possible walls, each offering varying elements of visibility, accessibility and availability.

Upon agreement from the NZ Opera, the wall space at the rear of the neighbouring building The Piano became the focal point and discussions began with Bronwyn Bijl, director of The Piano, and the Christchurch City Council. With positive responses on both fronts, a location was now secure and the mural a step closer to reality. The next step was to find an artist.

Although they had held discussions with a handful of mural artists, NZ Opera had not committed to anyone and were hoping to work with a local artist if possible. As the mural was supporting a production with an existing aesthetic and visual profile, NZ Opera were keen to work the promotional imagery into the mural, while still giving the selected artist some scope in the creative brief. As such, it made sense to find an artist whose work would translate well to the existing concept while bringing something distinct to the project.

With the artist’s painting on the Berlin Wall installation in Rauora Park fresh in our mind, we connected Ali with the talented Jessie Rawcliffe, whose dream-like figurative and portrait-based work seemed a perfect match. After some brief discussions, the project now had a wall and an artist to transform it.

Assisted by fellow artist Josh Bradshaw, Jessie started work on the wall on a dark Thursday evening. Wilson Parking kindly allowed the car parks in front of the wall to be coned off, and the weekend saw the artist hard at work. Jessie’s beautifully rendered dry-brush technique makes for a lengthy process, but the results are stunning, with the smoky, gentle effect becoming instantly recognisable as the artist’s stylistic trademark.

The image of two of the opera’s central characters intertwined but ultimately distanced, a suggestion of the threads of politicking and trickery throughout the famous opera, are rendered in striking greyscale, with small flashes of red adding vibrancy. The relatively pared back palette works harmoniously with the faded graffiti already on the concrete wall, emphasising the ability of the operatic production to speak to contemporary experiences, despite being 235 years old.

While the central city carpark is a busy setting, obscuring the image during the working week, the knowing glances of the characters peer out above the vehicles, catching passing (and parking) visitors. Jessie’s painting captures the sophistication of the opera while still embracing an urban grittiness, itself a marriage of sorts.

While the work, as all urban art ultimately is, will be temporary, with the short run of the production and the surrounding space itself facing a future renovation, it is hoped this project might lead to further pan-arts opportunities. Muralism and urban art have become a striking element of Ōtautahi’s creative profile, and with the right support and networking, it would be exciting to explore more collaborative projects between this form of visual art and the performing arts; not just for promotional purposes but also to allow the investigation of new concepts and approaches where the two work together. While marriage can be tricky, it may be worth exploring its benefits…

Thank you to Ali Davies at The NZ Opera, Bronwyn Bijl at The Piano, Cyrus Tee at Wilson Parking, Rachel Welfare at Life in Vacant Spaces, Rick Harvie at Belmont Productions, Martin Kozinsky at the Christchurch City Council, Josh Bradshaw and most importantly, Jessie Rawcliffe for their work on bringing the mural project to life.

Marriage of Figaro Mural
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