19 Jan 2017

Whanganui opera school puts aspiring singers to the test

6:24 pm on 19 January 2017

Whanganui is not a town synonymous with opera, but the cream of New Zealand's young talent is in the city attending an operatic boot camp credited with kickstarting international careers.

Whangarei soprano Elisa Boom performs under the watchful instruction of Della Jones.

Whangarei soprano Elisa Boom performs under the watchful instruction of Della Jones. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The New Zealand Opera School is not a place for singers short on self-confidence.

After negotiating an exacting selection process, successful candidates can expect 14-hour days encompassing yoga, drama, language coaching and no-holds-barred singing master classes - often held in front of live audiences.

Internationally-renowed mezzo-soprano Della Jones is one of two international guest tutors at this year's opera school.

Ms Jones said the gruelling programme replicated what was required to be a successful singer.

"Hard work, total dedication. It really really is. Learning, memorising, everything to do with it. Keeping yourself fit... that doesn't mean you can't go to parties, but not the day before a concert.

"It's looking after everything mentally, physically and vocally."

As part of the programme, students sing in cafes and restaurants, take part in public master classes, give a recital and perform a chapel service.

Ms Jones said she was blown away by how Whanganui embraced the school.

"There is incredible support spiritually, mentally and fun-wise. It's a coming together of people and they are so excited by it and of course that rubs off on the young singers here because they know it is something special and they are giving to this community and the community is giving to them."

Auckland soprano Clare Hood dreams of singing at Covent Garden.

Auckland soprano Clare Hood dreams of singing at Covent Garden. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Soprano Clare Hood was attending Opera School for the first time.

The 22-year-old Auckland University graduate was under no illusions about what the opportunity was all about.

"It's a test to see whether you can handle pressure, whether you can handle working in this environment with these people. It think that's part of it and then it gives you confidence and more tools and skills and a more polished repertoire you can take with you to auditions and competitions which is where I'm headed next."

Ms Hood had big dreams, but was trying to keep them in check.

"I would be lying if I said I didn't have my eyes on London. I have an Irish passport. I'd love to study there, I'd love to work there.

"Yes I would absolutely love to sing somewhere like Covent Garden, but ultimately be able just to have a job and get paid to have that job and to enjoy it and work with great colleagues, that's what I want at the end of the day."

Auckland soprano Isabella Moore has returned to Whanganui from San Francisco where she studying under Cuban Cesar Ulloa, this year's other international tutor at Opera School

Auckland soprano Isabella Moore has returned to Whanganui from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Isabella Moore was returning to Whanganui from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where she is studying under Cesar Ulloa - this year's other international tutor at Opera School.

The 26-year-old Auckland soprano credited the school with making her seriously consider a singing career.

"I'm not sure how I got in actually someone I think vouched for me. I personally felt like I was a bit of a weak link. I had not much experience at all and had probably sung like one aria ever.

"Yeah but I got to take part in the final concert and that was probably one of my first real big kind of performances I'd ever done."

Ms Moore said ultimately to succeed in opera you had to have a burning self belief.

"Honestly you have to be your own number one fan. You really have to rely on yourself and be confident in your talent and what you've got to offer because that the end of the day it is just you and your voice and if you don't believe in yourself then other people won't either."

School director Jonathan Alver said over more than 20 years, about 400 students had passed through the New Zealand Opera School, with tenors Simon O'Neil and Darren Pene Pati, of Sol3 Mio fame, being notable alumni.

Director Jonathan Alver says tenors Simon O'Neil and Darren Pene Pati, of Sol3 Mio fame, are notable alumni of the Opera School.

Director Jonathan Alver Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Mr Alver said there was a great deal of talent in New Zealand, but because the country was so far away from the major operatic institutions it was difficult to give students the experience of a full conservatoire.

"The universities do their best but they can't give you as we do here - seven pianists on tap, and they can't give three full-time singing teachers who are teaching every minute of the day.

"So what go here is give an intense experience across two weeks. The sort of experience that if any of these students make into any one of the conservatoires around the world that will get on a full time basis."

Mr Alve said the school had been adopted by the people of Whanganui and he would not dream of taking it anywhere else.

This year's programme wraps up this weekend with an ensemble performance at the Whanganui Opera House.

Hamilton baritone Jarvis Dames is put through his paces by Australian singing coach Sharolyn Kimmorley.

Hamilton baritone Jarvis Dames is put through his paces by Australian singing coach Sharolyn Kimmorley. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

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