When musicians Holly and Zac Winterwood greet you, it’s hard to miss their Aussie twang. But the couple’s latest piece has been a chance to explore their almost forgotten New Zealand roots.

Holly and Zac, hailing from Melbourne, settled in Greytown in 2015, where they have already become a staple of the local creative scene: from composing melodic theatrical soundtracks, to playing at Shakespeare performances, to creating an operatic epic featuring ambient electronic sounds, whale bone flutes and conch shell trumpets.

The latter piece, Paeakau, will debut at the Kokomai Creative Festival in October.

The Winterwoods, graphic designers by day, are best known for their two musical projects, Silver Lillies and Otamo, which combine Holly’s classical vocal chops and Zac’s experimental guitar riffs to create evocative, multi-layered scores.

Paeakau is their most personal work to date. Written together with Holly’s mother Michele Hawkins, the modern-day opera is the story of a woman’s journey to her ancestral home, based on Holly and Michele’s Māori heritage.

Holly and Zac first came across Wairarapa while on a caravan tour of New Zealand, and were enchanted – more so when they discovered the artistic communities hiding out in between the paddocks, wineries and antique shops the region is better known for.

“We knew we’d be in for a treat on that first drive – coming from Wellington, where the Rimutakas open up to reveal the valley below,” Holly says.

“Everyone assumed we moved here because of the creative community, but that was completely unknown to us at the time. It’s been a hell of a ride discovering how creative it is here – finding the theatre community and the abundance of visual artists.

“It’s been an easy fit for us.”

Holly and Zac have been passionate about music since their youth – though their styles and disciplines were polar opposites. Holly has been playing the violin since age six and began singing opera at university, going on to perform with Opera Australia. Zac, by contrast, taught himself to play the guitar at age 12, later experimenting with noise music, ambient drone music and soundscape.

Their musical worlds collided once the couple got engaged and decided to jam together – starting with the theme from Braveheart. From there, as Silver Lillies, they began recording their own sprawling compositions: complete with Holly’s soprano vocals, violin and piano, pedal steel guitar and percussion. Otamo, their second project, uses similar instruments but is “highly improvised”.

Since moving to Wairarapa, Holly and Zac have performed concerts in Featherston, provided a live soundtrack at Greytown Little Theatre’s recent Shakespeare production, and played backing music for story readings at New Zealand Pacific Studio. They have also written soundtracks for two other Greytown Little Theatre shows, and Holly now serves on the theatre’s committee.

“The response to our music here has been positive. We’ve found people have got where we’re coming from and what we’re trying to convey with our songs.”

The Winterwoods hope to leave an even stronger imprint on audiences with their opera Paeakau, inspired by Holly re-connecting with her Ngāti Porou and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui whanau. In Paeakau, the title character feels alone in the land of her birth, until she is called by her Māori tipuna in a dream to “seek her bones” and find her whanau “across the sea”.

Holly’s maternal grandmother, Marie, was born at Te Araroa, on the East Coast, to a Pakeha mother and Māori father. From age three, Marie was raised in Gisborne by her mother, with no knowledge of her Māori family, apart from a surname.

“But she said she always felt Māori,” Holly says.

Holly felt a longing to connect with her heritage – so in 2007, she and mum Michele travelled around New Zealand in search of lost relatives.

“We found a whole side of our family we didn’t know existed. It’s such a cool story and Zac often told me ‘you need to sing about that!’”.

Holly describes Paeakau as “an immersive sonic experience”, blending operatic vocals, walls of guitar sound, dramatic narration, Māori waiata, and taonga puoro (traditional Māori instruments).

It will also feature recorded performances from Māori actor Rawiri Paratene (Whale Rider) and actor and singer Whirimako Black (White Lies).

“We wanted to create our own operatic landscape, on our own terms,” Holly says.

Paeakau has a fantasy-like tale, but it has a timeless quality, exploring themes about disconnection from one’s land and people.

“It asks questions like, ‘what does it mean to be Māori? Where do I fit in? Will I be accepted?’”

The Winterwoods spent time on the East Coast while writing the opera and have performed extracts for Holly’s whanau – which were received with joy and sorrow.

“Some of the whanau feel sadness, as some of the younger generation are living away from their ancestral lands.

“That sense of loss of culture is real. But Paeakau also gives a sense of hope. We’ve had feedback that the story needs to be told. It’s bigger than us.”

Holly and Zac are working on staging the opera, collaborating with locals on sets, lighting, costumes and props, to prepare for its opening in October.

“We’re excited – we want Paeakau to be felt on both a spiritual and intellectual level.”

Story by Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Photo by Lucia Zanmonti