I was at a dress rehearsal in 2014 at the Mercury Theatre and Marlena Devoe was singing the part of Lucia di Lammermoor. She was in the early stages of a vocal infection, but still managed to sing the whole famous mad scene with a most exquisite half-voice sound. It was a singing lesson in itself and David Harper, the coach, and I were sitting together in the stalls barely breathing as these delicately beautiful sounds emanated from this beautiful young New Zealander. We were moved to tears at the vulnerability of the singer combined with a deeply professional control being exercised while still acting like the "mad woman" she was portraying. Unforgettable. It made us both very proud to be Kiwis.
Are good voices born or made?
Good voices of varying quality are born and can and do have very good careers with development. But a great voice is obviously a natural gift. These voices are enhanced by a genius-like ability to create unbelievable magic with tone and colour seemingly effortlessly. Of course, none of the vocal rules would be broken, but the spirit of this singer exceeds all expectations. They lift our lives to another level.
What does a good voice sound like?
Balance of sound is paramount. A voice must have a balanced harmonic series — as much high resonance as low. Then the singer must strive to create beauty and emotion at all times.
How do you teach a genius?
They probably teach themselves. However, one of the truisms of singing is that the singer can never hear themselves in the same way the listener does. There is so much vibration and squillo going on in the head that the genius would not be a genius if they did not engage a musician with impeccable vocal taste to help keep their sound production on track.
What is the greatest gift singing has given you?
The greatest gift these days is to work with young talented people. It is a total joy and a privilege and helps keep my spirit and attitude young of mind and heart.
What did the Royal Academy of Music teach you?
The Royal Academy was a place of great learning, both of what works and what does not in terms of singing technique. I was one of three piano accompanists who played for all the teachers. Style and musicality were at the forefront of my learning days. There were fantastic opportunities to take masterclasses with many great accompanists, the likes of Martin Isepp, Benjamin Britten, Gerald Moore and Paul Hamburger — all greats of their time.
What's good about Handel?
So much of his music is mighty, powerful and grand in the courtly Baroque sense, and yet on the other hand he is capable of intense sweetness and yielding melodies, almost like no other.
The Auckland Opera Studio performs Handel's Oreste at Mercury Theatre today and tomorrow.