When Oliver Sewell found himself in an enclosed space, surrounded by 11 weapon-wielding heavyweights, he was calmer than most of us would be. Instead of panicking he remained cool, confident that his own combat training would see him escape unscathed.

"Still," he says, "a big metal thing hitting you hard; you're likely to break an arm."

In the end, Sewell's arm was fine. He wasn't walking the back streets of some run-down town, he was on stage at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, where he is a resident artist. The 11 henchmen carrying (blunted) swords were fellow singers performing Verdi's opera Il Trovatore.

Sewell, who appears in the APO's concert production of Aida on Friday, says stage combat is just one of the skills a modern classical singer must perfect.

Advertisement

"[Combat] comes up all the time in opera, so it's great to have confidence that when there's going to be a fight scene it's not intimidating, you can just get on and do it."

During his studies, which have seen him earn a Bachelor's degree at the University of Canterbury, a diploma from the New Zealand School of Music and a Master's from the Manhattan School of Music, he's picked up numerous similar tricks.

Sewell can now hold his own on the dance floor — which, he says, has helped with his vocal technique — and he has become expert at studying the origins of every word he sings, to try to find deeper meanings to aid his characterisations.

But Sewell admits he wasn't always so dedicated.

"Looking back at the tiny amount of work I did at the beginning, I'm embarrassed," he says. "I don't know how I got through it, how I performed roles or how people could stand watching it. I had so little understanding or respect of the art or for technique."

Sewell credits one of his professors in Manhattan, pianist Warren Jones, as important in shaping his work ethic. As a collaborative pianist, Jones has accompanied the best of the best vocalists, including the likes of Kathleen Battle, Marilyn Horne and Thomas Hampson, and he knows what it takes to reach the top.

"[Jones] shifted my attitude towards preparation, approach, language, technique, and to respect the art and find deeper meanings," says Sewell. "He's an inspiring guy."

Sewell's new-found application is beginning to pay off. In the last academic year, he sang Alfredo, the lead male in Verdi's La Traviata. As someone who prefers comic roles — Nemorino from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amour is a favourite — Sewell found Alfredo challenging.

Advertisement

"It was hard work. Alfredo's mood shifts so quickly, so to make that real and justify the action was difficult. It was very rewarding but at the end of the show I was emotionally spent, as well as physically and vocally."

Sewell's voice suits Verdi and the APO's Ronan Tighe was keen to make use of Sewell's talents in Aida.

"It was great to have him back in the country for a while so that we could ask him to sing this little role," says Tighe. "We feel very lucky that a young New Zealander doing so well in his career overseas was available."

Maria Luigia Borsi takes the role of Aida in the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and NZ Opera's production of the Verdi opera.
Maria Luigia Borsi takes the role of Aida in the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and NZ Opera's production of the Verdi opera.

Aida

is one of the great operas and the title character is one of the great soprano roles, particularly notable for an infamous exposed high C in the aria "O patria mia". Marked dolce — "sweetly" — the note, which sits way up in the soprano range, can't just be belted out. The APO's Aida, Maria Luigia Borsi, will need to show extreme control and subtlety.

Aida's Messenger, who Sewell plays, is not one of the great tenor roles. The Messenger is a functionary who's there to provide information to the lead characters so that they can sing an emotional song about it; all up, Sewell has about three lines. But adhering to Stanislavski's principle that there are no small parts, Sewell's looking forward to it.

"I've done a few of these bit parts in Verdi operas before; it goes past in the blink of an eye. It's easy to say it's not much work but listening to it with a discerning ear it's a really great few lines. The music is super-dramatic, and compared to the average Verdi supporting role, this is up there; for this sort of part, it's as good as it gets."

Lowdown
What: Verdi's Aida, performed by Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in association with New Zealand Opera
Where & When: Auckland Town Hall, Friday; the concert is also live streamed on Facebook, apo.co.nz and rnz.co.nz