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Top soprano Morag Atchison muses on coveted roles

Last week, in the University of Auckland Music Theatre, Morag Atchison revealed why she is one of the country's top sopranos. In a programme titled Songs Ancient and Modern, she moved effortlessly from five of Handel's German arias through modern settings by Richard Rodney Bennett and Canadian John Greer to four short and punchy songs by New Zealand composer Judith Exley.

Next Friday, Atchison heads the soloists for Auckland Choral's War and Peace concert, renewing an association that began 18 years ago when she made her debut with the group in Bach's St John Passion.

Since then she has proved her versatility in a range of genres, most recently singing with Voices NZ Chamber Choir in the Wellington premiere of Ross Harris' Requiem for the Fallen.

Operatically, she has fond memories of NBR NZ Opera's 2006 The Magic Flute, playing First Lady alongside Aivale Cole and Kate Spence. "It was so much fun," she laughs. "We got stuck into it and worked well as a team."


Two years ago, as Helmwige, she was a fearsome, full-voiced Valkyrie in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Die Walkure, "a phenomenal experience, coming on stage as the orchestra played that famous Ride."

She muses on coveted roles. One is Lady Billows in Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring but "not quite yet", she says. "I need to wait to be the right age and have the right quality of voice."

Mozart's Donna Anna is also on the list for this singer with "a real soft spot for Don Giovanni." She tells me of a John Copley production in London and playing Donna Elvira in a cast that included both Jonathan Lemalu and Jared Holt. "I've got the colours in my voice now to do Donna Anna."

Atchison is one of the savviest sopranos around when it comes to knowing how voices work, a skill that is invaluable for her teaching at the university's School of Music. She can look back on decades of study, including postgraduate work in Britain and a recent doctorate from Auckland University that she took on because she "wanted to back up my own ideas and teaching."

Discussing the issues around singing Bach, she brings up the necessity of a solid technique. "Although eventually you have to be able to put it in the background so you can perform and tell the story. Fundamentally singers are vehicles for emotion and text," she explains. "We tell stories and when there's no overriding narrative, you have to make your own to keep things going."

Atchison sees implicit narratives in Haydn's Mass in Time of War, the main offering in Friday's concert. This is one of the great Haydn Masses, written in 1796 when Austria was moving towards war with France.

She talks of "an aching reason for every note discussing the Benedictus movement and even though there's not a huge amount of solo work in the piece, it's essential to its impact".

Auckland Choral's Anzac Day concert, which also includes a Bach Toccata and Fugue, played by organist John Wells, and a new setting by David Hamilton of Wilfred Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth, also features a requiem by the German composer Michael Renhart, unfinished at the time of his death. Atchison is also in this. "Singing it, you get a feeling of where the composer was when he wrote the work. There's a sense of loss and a certain frustration. There's a duet I have with tenor Derek Hill in which ostinato patterns keep changing as they repeat," she adds. "You never feel quite comfortable, but when those moments of clear tonality come through, it's absolutely glorious."


What: Auckland Choral - War and Peace

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Friday at 5pm