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In these times when divas and divos venture into the crossover lane with indifferent success, the 1950s and 60s recordings of Inia Te Wiata reveal a singer who floated from opera and lieder to waiata and show tunes with enviable ease.

Just Call Me Happy is the newest release in the Turnbull Library's Treasures of Sound series, a handsome package offering 49 samplings of Te Wiata's artistry and a bonus DVD.

The whole project represents three years of painstaking work and care by his widow, Beryl Te Wiata, aided by the expert production skills of Wayne Laird.

A few phrases into Te Wiata's opening song, I got Plenty o' Nuttin', one hears the "waft of good will" that the late Spike Milligan attributes to the singer in his DVD interview.

Te Wiata was a man of rare talents who died in 1971 at the age of 56.

"He had that ability to move from opera or whatever into the absolutely light stuff and he knew how to do it," Beryl Te Wiata explains. "He never thought about it."

Although the four tracks from Porgy and Bess are taken from a private English recording with the Pinewood Studio Orchestra, Te Wiata would bring Porgy to life on stage, when the New Zealand Opera Company toured its historic production in 1965-66.

Beryl Te Wiata recalls the charisma her husband exerted on the New Zealand public.

"When he turned around to wave to the company as he was going off to New York, all these people in the audience had their handkerchiefs out and were waving back. He couldn't believe it."

Beryl Te Wiata, who caught her husband in depth and with eloquence in her 1976 biography Most Happy Fella, emphasises that the six operatic excerpts on the anthology represent a fraction of a career.

There were problems obtaining recordings of his performances in contemporary works such as Richard Rodney Bennett's Victory or Humphrey Searle's Hamlet.

Mozart's When a maiden takes your fancy brings back memories of Te Wiata's wonderfully wily Osmin in Il Seraglio in this country as well as with Scottish Opera. It was a success he seemed reluctant to take advantage of.

"He was told that his Osmin was the best," Beryl Te Wiata explains, "and he should go to Europe with it. He didn't, because of what was almost a shyness.

"He didn't think he could cope."

Te Wiata has no shortage of stories about the special bond this singer forged with his audiences. In one, he takes a restless baby from a mother's arms during the encores of a Hastings concert, cradling and calming the child with an unaccompanied Maori lullaby.

Then there is the tale of the Bulgarian bass, Boris Christoff, playing Boris to Te Wiata's Pimen at Covent Garden and being miffed when the New Zealander had the front of the stage to himself for his big monologue.

"Christoff waved this handkerchief around at the back of the stage and made strange wailing noises during the piece," Te Wiata remembers, "and you can hear him on the recording."

You realise how the role of Tony Esposito in Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella might have been written for Te Wiata, who had a West End triumph with it in 1960.

"Frank was delighted to find someone who could sing, act and look like an Italian," Te Wiata tells me.

"All this as well as singing like one. It was a big role and he had to do it as a baritone, singing without microphones in the London Coliseum. The only number Frank would transpose down was Rosabella.

"For the rest, he said there was too much orchestration and he would have to stay baritone."

Inia Te Wiata was a man of prodigious energy and it comes out in Beryl Te Wiata's crisp, witty booklet notes. She admits she is still amazed how her husband "could follow a big role in Bruce Mason's Awatea, involving a lot of shouting and angst-ing, with a recital the following evening".

On disc you can experience his thrilling accounts of Maori waiata and chants, in among Schubert Lieder and calypso sauciness. Sources are various.

Alfred Hill's iconic Waiata Poi, performed in a live BBC broadcast, was caught on a chorus member's cassette.

There has been a treasure restored, too, on the DVD: Beryl Te Wiata's 1975 film Every Bend a Power, documenting the creation of Te Wiata's mighty pouihi that stands in New Zealand House, London.

"It was a big thank you for all the people who had helped him," she says of her husband's mammoth carving.

"I don't think people bother to thank you these days.

"And it still hasn't come back to where it should be."

* Just Call Me Happy: Beryl Te Wiata presents recordings by Inia Te Wiata (Atoll ACD 507)