An "exquisite" portrait by Whanganui artist Felicity Priest of former New Zealand Opera student Stephen Diaz was gifted to the Sarjeant Gallery's permanent collection on Wednesday night.

The painting's subject is described as having one of the finest counter tenor voices in the world.

New Zealand Opera School chairman Donald Trott said the portrait of Diaz had travelled around New Zealand in an exhibition two years ago and had attracted a lot of interested buyers.

"It was such a beautiful painting I bought it and decided to gift it back to Whanganui to the gallery. Stephen's career really took off here so it was right the portrait should be in the place where he started."

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Inspired by great French artists Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Priest's exhibition currently at the gallery features performance moments during New Zealand Opera School over the past four years.

The performance portraits had started in earnest, she said when Stephen Diaz sat for her three years ago at her home.

It was at the request of opera school executive chairman Donald Trott.

"I worked and he sang - my little house was filled with his beautiful voice."

It meant she was able to capture the power and the energy of his voice as she painted, she said.

"It was in the moment ... a response to everything happening in the moment."

After moving to Wanganui from London eight years ago she's now very settled, she said.

Priest feels her love of music, beautiful voices and visual art have led her to this point where she will work for years.

"I'll never retire."

At Wednesday night's event, internationally acclaimed tenor Simon O'Neill, a student in the first year of the school in 1994 and this year a tutor, delighted the audience at the gallery by singing two arias.

In honour of Felicity he sang Recondita armonia from Puccini's Tosca.