26 Aug 2020

Orchestras and ballet company fail to secure visas for top overseas talent

3:44 pm on 26 August 2020

New Zealand's top orchestras and ballet company have been left floundering for talent after failing to secure visas for dancers and players from overseas.

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Millions watched the NZSO's online performances but four people recruited by the NZSO are now stuck in the UK and Australia. Photo: Supplied by NZSO

The number of people watching online performances by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and Royal New Zealand Ballet skyrocketed into the millions during the nationwide lockdown earlier this year.

Now the organisations at the forefront of New Zealand's performing arts says foreign musicians and dancers must be considered as essential workers.

Four players with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) are stuck in the UK and Australia, having been recruited just before the border closed.

The orchestra's chief executive Peter Biggs said an application to bring them in as essential workers was denied.

"We're very keen to get them in, they've all been declined so far but these are our employees, we're paying them," he said.

"We're very worried that we'll have serious gaps in our orchestra component and so won't be able to deliver the repertoire that we promised our fans we would."

Biggs said the musicians play specialist horn and bassoon instruments and their talent is globally scarce.

He is determined to bring them to New Zealand and will re-apply for visas.

"We're trying to do our best in terms of being responsible around our request for overseas players but also we're very conscious that as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra we have a special role in the cultural life of New Zealand," Biggs said.

"The arts are an important part of our infrastructure. That was proved during lockdown we had three million views of our streaming and we had a huge number of email and letters from our fans saying how much the orchestra playing and continuing to play meant for them."

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The Royal New Zealand Ballet is trying to bring dancers into the country for its October production. Photo: Evan Li

It is a similar story at the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, where Barbara Glaser is chief executive.

The philharmonia applied to bring in five specialist musicians, including a specialist full-time french horn player, but only music director Giordano Bellincampi was approved for a short term visit.

He completed managed isolation in time for scheduled sold-out concerts in August - which were then Covid-cancelled.

Glaser said Giordano Bellincampi is now back home in Copenhagen.

"From many points of view it was by no means a wasted visit. It was just very, very sad that we didn't have any concerts at the end of it because we were just really looking forward to it," she said.

Glaser said the border needs to open to such artists and orchestras have always pulled from a global market for musicians.

"I think it is a question of having that balance between the fantastic home grown talent that's here that we use as a matter of course and having some international artists," she said.

"Orchestras, like many other art forms, we work on a global stage. There's virtually no orchestra I can think of that only uses artists from their own country."

The Royal New Zealand Ballet is also caught in the headlights of border restrictions.

The ballet company's executive director, Lester McGrath, said it is trying again to bring in dancers for its October production of The Sleeping Beauty - for which it does not currently have enough dancers.

"It is very challenging to stage a ballet like The Sleeping Beauty when you don't have enough dancers to actually dance it," he said.

The University of Auckland's head of music, James Tibbles, said essential workers should include artists from music and dance.

"It's essential for the stability and the support of the arts in New Zealand that orchestras and ballet companies and so on are able to offer to the country the product that the country needs to sustain itself in a civilised society. In that sense, I would've thought that these are essential."

Tibbles said while it is important to nurture talent returning to the country from overseas, the market for artists has been global.

"It's very unfortunate because we do rely on more than only New Zealand citizens and permanent residents to staff our large ensembles, and or smaller ensembles. The world has been an international marketplace for professional musicians."

An internationally renowned organist, Tibbles had a busy year of overseas travel for work cancelled.

The government says it is aware of the difficulties faced by the performing arts.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said as well as the wage subsidy, there are targeted funds for those working in arts and culture.

"We identified very early on that this was a sector that would be hit hard by our Covid response and the protections we're putting in place because mass gatherings are just so difficult," she said.

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