Edmund Bohan - a man of parts

A HAPPY LIFE: Author, historian and singer Edmund Bohan.
A HAPPY LIFE: Author, historian and singer Edmund Bohan.

For decades, Edmund Bohan has maintained the balance between the roles of historian and professional singer in a life which has taken him from Christchurch to Britain and back. These days he has no intention of fading away completely. Christopher Moore talks to a man who did it his way.

'I was born in Christchurch on October 5, 1935, late on a hot Saturday during which the family cat produced kittens, a batch of chickens hatched from their eggs and my 5-year-old sister became distraught when, in spite of the best efforts of her siblings to distract her, she glimpsed Mum getting into the taxi to take her to Lyndhurst Nursing Home."

After being launched on this pleasantly domestic note, Edmund Bohan's life has, he observes 77 years later, continued in a series of harmonious variations. Bohan has played many parts in his lifetime: historian, biographer, novelist, teacher and singer. He has been continually fascinated by the lives - public and private - of many of New Zealand's 19th-century great and good.

His Victorian detective O'Rorke explored the darker aspects of Victorian Christchurch. A long singing career in opera and concert performances saw him performing in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. He has sung with the English Opera Group, State Opera of New South Wales and Canterbury Opera in works ranging from Monteverdi to Offenbach.

Today, Bohan and wife Gillian live in a comfortable Opawa villa, a home often filled with memories and different generations of family - something which Bohan relishes.

He has added another different book to his catalogue - an autobiography that, characteristically, he states is not aimed to settle old scores . This is a warm, funny and avuncular look back at a life he describes as "very happy".

An old friend rang him recently to tell him the book made him laugh out loud. "I was heartened by this."

This has been a life of fascinations ranging from Bohan's abiding interest with Victorian New Zealand to his passion for music and singing. The two have often tugged at his loyalties, but somehow he has maintained a balance despite having his career in music and literature described as adventurous. But the "sheer complexity" of his life - at one stage in Britain he was performing a concert every 10 days along with broadcasts, concerts and performances - has posed its own challenges.

"I was learning new music all the time. In my pig-headed way I persevered with writing. It's a combination of Irish and Scots stubbornness. Whatever. I seem to have inherited the Celtic love of music and words, something that has had a huge effect on my life.

"It hasn't been easy to tread the line between both. Many colleagues viewed my views of singing as rather strange, especially my deep distrust of operatic management. I was never wild about it.

"I was once told I wasn't ambitious enough. I replied that it all depends what you are ambitious to be."

Overall, he sees his two worlds as "nicely coinciding", adding mischievously that most musicians cannot write, most writers are tone deaf.

"To me it all seemed to be the obvious thing. It's what I've always wanted to do."

This is appropriate for a man who writes that as a child he was neither diffident or shy, "but often wilfully independent with a defiant cry 'I do it myself'."

Bohan was born into what was once described as "a mixed marriage". His father was New Zealand Irish Catholic, his mother Presbyterian.

"Religion was the great divide. Being half Catholic and half Presbyterian defined where you stood. The New Zealand Catholic church was dominated by the Irish. Their attitudes were very hard line. I was raised as a Catholic, but it was always made clear that we were in some way separate. Even at Christchurch Boys' High there was a divide and I was an outsider."

In 1954, Bohan launched his academic career, at the University of Canterbury, enrolling in history, political science and geography . His major subject, history, was under the tutelage of the feared Professor Neville Phillips. Studies were accompanied by music and the balancing act began.

In late 1957 - shortly before he sat his final examinations - he sung tenor solos in two gala performances of Bach's B Minor Mass with the Alex Lindsay orchestra and the Christchurch Harmonic Society. The next year he became a semi-finalist in the first Mobil Song Contest.

It set the pattern for the coming decades, especially after he moved to Britain to continue his musical career. Coincidentally, the Bach mass was Bohan's final oratorio before returning to New Zealand in 1988 after several decades working and singing in Europe.

Eventually Edmund and Gillian Bohan found themselves back in Christchurch in the late 1980s.

"Settling back was certainly no hardship," he writes. "In many ways it was as though I had never left, though the city itself had expanded far and wide and there were hundreds of restaurants. Every time we went into the city centre and library I encountered old acquaintances from school or university.

One aspect of Christchurch that had not - unfortunately - altered over the years was its internecine musical rivalries, common enough in music worldwide but virulent in my beloved home city. I immediately made it known I had no intention of joining in either the ancient or the more recently generated feuds. I intended to work with everyone and anyone if they wanted to work with me."

And so he did - with the late Christopher Doig, delivering lectures on opera, song and music for the university's Continuing Education programme, singing in oratorios and teaching. He sang in Doig's 1990 International Festival production of Wagner's Die Meistersingers. Two years later he was back in Wellington singing in Doig's production of Salome.

By then he was " very much part" of Canterbury Opera, happy at this stage of his career to sing the character roles and work as a member of the company's artistic panel.

In 2001, Bohan sang The Tale Of Hoffmann's four comic roles in the Canterbury Opera production. At 68, he later became the oldest cast member in the 2003 Wellington production of Der Rosenkavalier. From then on, words rather than operatic librettos became his focus, with a series of successful histories, including the acclaimed studies of a trio of eminent 19th-century New Zealanders: Edward Stafford, Edward Fitzgerald and George Grey.

The fictional detective O'Rorke pursued justice in the streets of Victorian Christchurch, while in 2005 Bohan completed writing Climates of War, his exploration of the causes and events of the Maori-British conflicts of the 1860s.

Today he reads, gardens, occasionally listens to music, enjoys his family and keeps a close eye on events past and present. "I think that old writers are like old soldiers are supposed to be, and I've no intention yet of fading away."

Singing Historian: A Memoir by Edmund Bohan. Canterbury University Press. Paperback. RRP$30.

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