Madison Nonoa is one of our most promising opera singers with a CV to prove it - award after award listed along with an impressive array of degrees, diplomas and roles.

But when she visited the NZME building to be photographed for Weekend, there was one thing Nonoa especially wanted to do: see the studios where the Flava radio station crew hang out.

Nonoa, 24, is a huge fan of hip-hop and R&B, often hangs out with her six younger brothers and sisters, who like cooking and sport - and her boyfriend is fellow opera singer Filipe Manu.

Nevertheless, opera singers come with a certain mystique. We think of them as inhabiting a rarefied world of endless travel between European capitals to perform in grand concert halls and wearing lavish costumes.

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That might be nice, she says, but there's a way to go until she's living that life.

"Opera is a long game because you're in an industry where you won't reach your peak potential until your 30s and 40s. You spend a long time training, which can be exciting because your voice is a muscle and you're slowly finding out what it can do, but it's a while until you really get to spread your wings."

Opera singer Madison Nonoa. Photo: Doug Sherring
Opera singer Madison Nonoa. Photo: Doug Sherring

Now Nonoa, who collected the Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation Scholarship for the singer with the most promise at last year's Lexus Awards, will add some contemporary culture cache to the opera singer mystique.

Fresh from performing with Rufus Wainwright at the Auckland Arts Festival, she's part of Auckland Theatre Company's Amadeus. She'll perform alongside the likes of Michael Hurst, dancer/choreographer Ross McCormack, actors Morgana O'Reilly, Byron Coll and Kura Forrester and singer Laughton Kora.

Written by the late British playwright Peter Shaffer and first performed in 1979, Amadeus is set in Vienna in the 1780s where music is the currency of power and court composer Antonio Salieri (Hurst) wields a lion's share.

That is, until Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart turns up. Confronted with true genius, Salieri is consumed with obsessive jealousy and declares war on God for choosing to speak through the uncouth upstart and not him. Magnificent music and madness follow.

(Neither the play nor the multi-award winning 84 film - and soundtrack album, which remains one of the most popular classical recordings of all time - have anything to do with Austrian musician Falco's mega 1985 hit Rock Me, Amadeus. That was, perhaps, simply a case of cashing in at a fortuitous moment).

Nonoa's audition was completely different to any opera she's experienced because they had chosen a song for her rather than her performing an aria of her choosing.

She plays opera singer Katerina Cavalieri, who she describes as a true diva. Nonoa reckons director Oliver Driver, who emailed her about the role when she was training at The Juilliard School in New York, thought she could bring a freshness and energy to the character.

"I feel quite excited; I'm not frightened, it's more of a good nervous energy," she says. "I've never played a character before who's so out there, so sparky, and that will definitely demand a different energy from me."

There wasn't a moment's hesitation in accepting the role.

"I'm hoping to learn a lot from this because the opportunity is so massive and I just love the theatre."

And Nonoa's off talking about the last play she saw (Dave Armstrong's Anzac Eve) and how much she's looking forward to learning more about theatre - because while we might think of opera, theatre and dance as fitting in the catch-all "performing arts", they're quite distinctive disciplines. Just because you can sing opera, it doesn't mean you can act.

Nonoa has an advantage in that, as a child, she sang in a choir, aged 5, and performed in musical theatre - which she thought was the most fun thing you could do.

"I loved that everyone else loved singing as much as I do and the costumes - it was like playing dress-ups," she says.

She'll sing with an 11-piece on-stage band (Driver cut the number of characters to afford more musicians) and says Mozart's music can be tricky to perform but it's an exciting challenge.

If Amadeus will be a challenge for Nonoa, it's a chasmic leap for dancer/choreographer McCormack, 39. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is his acting debut and there are a lot of lines to learn. He forgot some during his audition so Driver told him to do what comes naturally and move around.

McCormack, a friend of Driver's, says they'd been dipping their toes into one another's respective worlds for some time. They like to make work - dance for him, theatre for Driver - which involves unlikely collaborators and explores new ways of doing what they do.

In a career spanning 16 years, McCormack has danced and choreographed for the Douglas Wright Dance Company, the Royal NZ Ballet, the NZ Dance Company and Australia's much-lauded Chunky Move and travelled to work in places as diverse as South Korea and Belgium. In the latter, he worked with the radical dance theatre collective les ballets C de la B.

He's set up research projects to look at experimenting with set design, won a Helpmann award in Australia and received the $100,000 Creative New Zealand Choreographic Fellowship in 2015. If McCormack was a rugby player, he would've been knighted by now.
He thought Driver wanted him to help with choreography; then was asked to audition and, like Nonoa, thought it would be the least he could do.

"I was completely stoked when I was offered the role and accepted immediately. Then I thought, 'how can this really happen?' I've got just weeks to learn what the people I'm going to be working with have spent years learning how to do."

That's kind of how Driver hoped McCormack would feel - like a bit of an outsider.

"Everyone who's seen the film Amadeus loved it but I don't want to put that film on stage or recreate what's already been done so I wanted to find a different way into the character of Amadeus and the story," Driver explains.

"Amadeus was an outsider whose natural language wasn't the spoken word; it was music so he almost seems awkward when put into a world where he has to speak and interact. I wanted a movement and physicality different to everyone on stage so he feels different."

Does he feel different? Yes and no, says McCormack, admitting in early read-throughs of the script he found it strange to have to sit down around a table. He worked extensively with Hurst and Driver before formal rehearsals began and has already learned it's great to come prepared but you don't want to be overly so.

"Because you've started saying lines in a certain way and when the director tells you to deliver it differently, it's hard to break what's become a habit . . . "

But McCormack says everyone has openly shared with him advice and he's been made to feel extremely welcome. Besides, as Driver wanted, the cast and crew come from a variety of backgrounds but are linked by an urge to do things differently.

Take musical director Leon Radojkovic, Driver's MD for their re-imagined Jesus Christ Superstar. Radojkovich wants to take some of the sounds of the 18th century that Mozart was familiar with - reeds, brass, pipe organs, strings, the voice - and blend them with the modern instruments and technologies we in the 21st century have at our disposal.

"Essentially attempting to imagine, were Mozart alive and working today, what might he do, for example, with amplification, electric guitars and keyboards, the drum kit? Being such an innovator, I feel quite sure he would have wanted to experiment with the full palette of sounds now available to us."

Fashion designer Adrian Hailwood is designing the costumes, promising they'll be modern and sleek, with a dash of the 18th century. Like Nonoa and McCormack, it's Hailwood's first foray into theatre.

"I don't want to make work you could see on TV or film," says Driver, "and I'm lucky to be at a stage in my career [he's 42] where I can say, 'this play has opera singing in it' and rather than having to put on a CD, get a genuine opera singer, like Madison, to perform the role or work with someone like Ross."