Leaving London's winter grey for the blue skies of Hawke's Bay, soprano Madeleine Pierard returns home for Christmas performances and to catch up with family.

Pierard left New Zealand in 2006 after winning the Lexus Song Quest and describes herself as living in a state of constant homesickness: "I'd be back in a heartbeat if I thought I could sustain a career in Europe from here," she says.

Her's is, indeed, a cosmopolitan career. A regular at the Royal Opera in Covent Garden, last year The Times newspaper praised her performance, for Shadwell Opera, of Erwartung, Schoenberg's one- woman expressionist meltdown, as "mesmerising, with every facial and body movement signalling a different micro-facet of inner turmoil."
In August, she was in Tianjin, China, for a well-received production of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia. Then back in Auckland, she was the elegant heroine of Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna in March.

In 2016, Pierard triumphed as Pat Nixon in John Adams' Nixon in China. This required particular stamina as the singer started rehearsals for the opera just five days after giving birth to daughter Eleanor. She speaks glowingly of the support given to her.

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"Opera singers who are mothers suffer a lot of discrimination," she says. "With so many people scrambling for roles, companies sometimes take the singer who seems to be the least trouble, claiming that you might put your children before your professional commitments."

This week, heading the bill in Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's annual Celebrate Christmas, she's fielding her own family memories. She remembers how the favoured holiday music back then would always be the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.

"Now, as a mother, in England, I find myself playing carols constantly throughout December; my children even go to sleep to them. In fact, they now want them all year round, but you have to draw the line somewhere."

Pierard will certainly be thinking of Christmases past when she sings John Tavener's The Song of the Angel this weekend.

"I requested it especially," she says. "This is the 'sound world' that I grew up with and my father used to play his recording of Tavener's The Protecting Veil, with cellist Steven Isserlis," she says. "I love its simplicity. Not only is it so moving but it does actually sound like the voice of an angel."

She looks forward to the challenge of Handel's celebrated aria, Let the Bright Seraphim and has no fear of its demands.

"Some might find it terrifying, but I absolutely relish it," she says. "I never get anxious with fast coloratura music, whereas singing a role like Mimi has me thinking technically all the time."

Pierard's big Handel moment may invoke memories of the same aria sung by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa at the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. The soprano remembers it well and is a firm fan of Dame Kiri.

"I adore her," she says. "She's not only a wonderful teacher, having had so much coaching and experience herself, but she genuinely cares about younger singers, especially with work visas.

"I had no idea of her god-like status in Britain until I went there and I'm sure that most New Zealanders don't appreciate just how iconic she is."

LOWDOWN
What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Celebrate Christmas
Where & when: Holy Trinity Cathedral, Friday and Saturday