David McAtamney - From the High Country to the Opera and Back Again
|David McAtamney is a third generation New Zealand high country farmer. He grew up amid the mountainous empty landscapes and big skies of Central Otago, where he still lives. As a child his family home was full of music. His dad loved to sing and regularly took lead roles in local musicals, while all seven children learned to read music and play piano. When it came to piano, 'I had hands like Moas feet,' says David.
Nevertheless, it was the beginnings of a life path that would take this baritone to contrasting career highs in both opera and farming. David first began singing in amateur productions at the local Ranfurly Music and Dramatical Society. 'I did that right from leaving school,' he says, 'that and rugby.
He met his wife Edna at the society, and it was she who later persuaded him to take private singing lessons. The pair married in 1967 and settled down to raising a family and working on the 400 hectare McAtamney family farm.
In 1978 David auditioned for a minor role in the Dunedin Opera Company's production of Carmen and was offered Escamillio. 'I surprised myself. I was inexperienced. I didn't think I'd get the main role,' he says.
David continued performing in operas and began entering and winning competitions. Then he was spotted by a talent scout, and offered a professional contract in the Australian Opera from 1983. It was an opportunity not available in New Zealand. 'So we put a manager on the farm and went to Sydney for three years.'
It was exciting times for David who describes himself as a 'true baritone.'
'I had a full two octave range and a bit. I could perform quite easily at a top A natural. If I was in really good form I could sing a B flat, something some tenors can't do. In that way I was probably a bit of a freak,' he says
David and Edna enjoyed the city life and made many new friends, but they visited home regularly.
'I used to notice that the air was clean and the sky at night was clear, and I'd think, 'this is what I've been missing.''
In 1996 the Australian Opera hit hard times. David 'tossed up' his options, which included taking his opera career to Europe. But the pull of the Central Otago high country was too strong and he came back to farm with his son.
Nowadays David runs high country horseback and four wheel drive tours; and he still performs occasionally. But his main focus continues to be farming. Today their fully irrigated sheep and cattle farm is complemented by another 400 hectares of leased land, both at 300 metres above sea level. David is also a shareholder in a 500 hectare high block (1200-1800 metres).
The sheep are a 50/50 mix of Romney, and Romney Merino crosses. David says the half-breeds combine the travelling ability and finer wool of the merino, with the prolific breeding capability and good feet of the Romney. 'You get the hybrid vigor from crossing,' he says.
In summer (January) David sends about 6,000 sheep up to the high block where they stay until Autumn (April), when they are shepherded down before the snow comes. A mustering gang of some 10-12 men, half on horse back and half on foot, with a total of 60-70 dogs, take up to a week to bring the stock down. 'The country is too steep for every man to have a horse,' says David.
In this modern era when some farmers use helicopters, mustering the traditional way is special. 'We appreciate it,' says David producing a photograph: Billowing clouds roll across huge skies; beneath, right across the wide landscape, thousands of sheep stream downhill. 'They're just like ants when they get in a big mob like that, says David, who's been behind mobs as big as 18,000 sheep.
It is a long way from the opera halls of Sydney, but it has its parallels for David. 'With the big successful shows there's a lot of adrenaline running; but you get carried away with what's going on around the farm too, he says.
'I've always been keen on farming.