The personal archives of New Zealand opera soprano Dame Malvina Major have been gifted to the University of Waikato, providing a cache of her entire career from her early training in Ngāruawāhia to the establishment of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation. Some of the archive is on display as an exhibition entitled “I did it my way” in the University’s Gallagher of Performing Arts from 20 November 2023 – 8 March 2024.
The timeline of Dame Malvina’s life is also the sharing of a dream for future opera students who may want to follow in her footsteps that led her from performing country and western music in the Waikato to performing solo for royalty on stages in London’s Covent Garden and at the Pyramids in Egypt.
“For future generations who may never know, I started as a country and western singer it’s all there in the archives. In fact, I think it was my country and western and yodelling foundation that developed my voice,” says Dame Malvina.
Her close association with the University over many years, including the recent establishment of Te Pae Kōkako, The Aotearoa New Zealand Opera Studio (TANZOS), meant the University was the obvious place to gift the archive, says Dame Malvina.
She hopes it serves as an inspiration for others to show what can be achieved over the course of a career.
“Students and particularly women, struggle now as they try to balance their careers and having families. It happened to me when I first went to London and had my son,” says Dame Malvina.
She was at the London Opera School studying, and her funder stopped paying her when her son was born, assuming her studies were over.
“The fact I had a baby was of no consequence to my studies.” She went on to have two more children and launch an international solo opera career.
“I did have a break in between my son and two daughters, where I returned to New Zealand, but I was called back to London 15 years later on the strength of how I established myself in those early days and my early career,” says Dame Malvina.
The archive contains materials including adjudicator notes from singing exams and competitions in her early days to correspondence about performances, invitations, photography, video and audio and notes from well wishes around the world.
“It is a significant record of her life from her very early days to the establishment of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation,” says University of Waikato Poutiaki Taonga, Collections Care Curator Cerys Davidson.
“It gives people a view behind the red curtains of performance and lets them into all the details from planning a performance to shared itineraries, dinner menus and the congratulatory cards that followed.”
Personal notes are also jotted by Dame Malvina herself on programmes or posters, noting what gown she was wearing, about other performers she would be performing with, or mentions of highlights from events.
“The exhibition hopes to provide a journey through the archive, sharing detailed touch points from performances to significant moments throughout Dame Malvina’s career,” says Cerys.
For Dame Malvina, the archive has also proven somewhat of a revelation.
“I look back and think, why was I the person to do all that? I understood my ability to perform and communicate with people, but I never understood my inability to accept that I’m great. I was, and I guess am always striving for better,” says Dame Malvina.
Further details of the exhibition, including opening times, can be found here.
Image caption: Malvina Major aged around 21, image courtesy of Stuff Limited.