I catch up with Kathryn Harries, the judge of this year's Lexus Song Quest, when she is about to relinquish an English summer for a winter Downunder. The soprano first visited us in more temperate climes, in November 1989, singing Sieglinde with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, in a concert performance of Wagner's Die Walkure under Franz-Paul Decker.

"I'd just done Fidelio with Decker in Buenos Aires and he asked me to join him," she recalls. "It was a wonderful opportunity to come to New Zealand."

When it comes to opportunities for singers, Harries, who is the extremely proactive director of London's National Opera Studio, is pleased "there are more young people thinking seriously about taking up opera and classical singing - but the market is shrinking worldwide".

Tonight's six finalists - Benson Wilson, Bianca Andrew, Christian Thurston, Edward Laurenson, Isabella Moore and Oliver Sewell, all vying for the $25,000 first prize - are facing tougher times.

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"There is so much more expected of singers today," Harries explains. "For one thing, it's important to look good in high definition for the videocasts. There's also the whole business of international travel, which means you can be here, there and everywhere in a short space of time, which is not always good for your voice."

Cyberspace may offer tempting opportunities, but there is a potential downside. "You can put up an extract on YouTube and advertise yourself," Harries points out. "However, you can also be criticised by anyone out there on the web in no time at all; that can be quite hard to deal with."

Criticism is a much more personal issue than it is for instrumental players. "Everybody's voice is unique. When you stand up and sing, you're presenting yourself raw. We bare our souls and reveal our very selves."

Harries thinks back to her own beginnings and admits that, if she ever got around to writing a book, it would have to be titled In At The Deep End. After her initial studies at the Royal Academy, she spent some years fronting Music Time, a television programme for youngsters, "which paid the mortgage and school fees", she laughs.

When screenings finished in the early 80s, she debuted as Leonore in Fidelio, taking over from soprano Anne Evans who, a few years later, would sing alongside her in that 1989 New Zealand concert.

"I was so fortunate to play so many dramatic roles and real meaty characters," she says, admitting she would have liked to add Verdi's Eboli and Saint-Saens' Dalila to her repertoire of Wagner, Janacek, Berlioz and John Adams.

Just a few weeks ago, she sang Poulenc's La Dame de Monte-Carlo in a triptych of Berlioz, Poulenc and Schoenberg devised by director Frederic Fisbach for the 2014 Spoleto Festival.

"I would have loved to have sung Violetta because I fell so deeply in love with the music of Traviata, but it was never in my voice," she muses.

Tonight, the six singers give us both lieder and arias, the one with pianist Terence Dennis, the other with the NZSO. Harries applauds the balancing of song with opera.

"Lieder are invaluable," she stresses. "All singing is a matter of conveying text, and song is a marvellous way of doing it in a very compressed form. After all, lieder and opera cover the same big human issues - love, betrayal and death. But the smaller scale of the song needs so much attention to detail."

Nevertheless, the lure of the opera stage is still irresistible. "There is no greater joy on this planet than singing with an orchestra. And what a privilege it is to be part of that enormous team, creating something so fantastic."