Wade Kernot is a Westie who fell into opera, though he’s never lost his love of taking cars apart. Now based in Switzerland, he is home this month to sing in New Zealand Opera’s La Traviata.
1. What sort of music did you grow up singing?
My dad had a country music band which played at the Waitemata Country Music Club. Mum played bass and my sister and I both sang. They'd take us to gigs and we'd be sitting on the side of the stage in our pyjamas. I still listen to country when I'm feeling homesick or missing Mum and Dad. I get really homesick for New Zealand, especially the bush. The only opera I ever heard growing up was when my Grandma would play Carmen while she was doing the housework.
2. So how did opera happen?
I went to Bruce McLaren Intermediate and Waitakere College and both were 50 per cent Polynesian so there was lots of music, harmony groups and choirs. When I did barbershop I was the only white guy among these huge other guys with beautiful voices. So it was never ostracising, being a singer. All the First XV were in choirs, too. My voice had dropped when I was about 10 and I would belt out these top Gs - young boys generally don't sing like that. And one of my teachers had trained for a while as an opera singer. He gave me a push.
3. Was the opera world a bit of a shock?
I got asked to join the Opera Factory which was for young singers and I remember going along with my friend Nick. We stood out like sore thumbs - it was mostly Remuera youth in all these label clothes and we were these really rough Westies in black jeans and white sneakers. I had an old Vauxhall Viva and this guy got in the car and goes "what's that rooaarr noise"? I was like "ahh, that's the exhaust pipe. It's just a noisy car". I think he was used to pretty smooth-sounding Audis.
4. Did you ever feel like you fitted in?
Oh yeah. Once we started singing we fitted in fine. At the weekends my friends and I all loved pulling cars apart and putting them back together for fun and there were no girls around, really. But at the Opera Factory it was a lot of really good looking girls and the guys that were there were mostly gay. In teenage maths surely that's got to help the ratio, but no. Not for me. Nick did really well, though.
5. But now you've got a gorgeous soprano wife, Emma. How did you meet her?
In a way we had an almost arranged marriage. We got together as a show romance - my first one - and then she went back to Australia. Then by chance I got into a school in Perth and six months later she won a competition that took her to Germany. So even though we hadn't spent long together, we had this big summit meeting and covered everything about life: how many kids we wanted; where we wanted to live; what we wanted out of life and it all just matched. We decided it was worth trying the long-distance thing.
6. What's your tip for keeping love at a distance alive?
Skype. And talking things through and making decisions together. I took my wedding vows very seriously and spend every day living up to those words.
7. What's the biggest difference between life in Switzerland and life in New Zealand?
It's like living in a strict Victorian elderly Lord's chocolate box manor in the middle of a perfect golf course. Everything is incredibly beautiful, expensive, and there are a million rules. There are specific days when you can hang your rugs out and give them a whack and specific days to put your newspapers out but they have to be stacked a certain way and tied with a certain type of string.
8. Does it make you want to break rules?
It does bring out your naughty tendencies. A couple of months ago the fire chief took me to this illegal bar that stayed open until 6am. I was in tails because we'd had a performance but it was Carnival and there were people in there in giraffe costumes. It was a weird, funky, underground place I didn't know existed and I've been there four years.
9. Did you have a happy childhood?
I have lots of happy memories but I got really sick with meningitis when I was 8. No one really knew what it was and I spent a lot of time in hospital. My grandma mostly looked after me because she had time and to keep me occupied she taught me how to crochet. I still crochet my own beanies -- because I've got such a huge head it's hard to find ones that fit. I tell people it originated with men making their own fishing nets so it's a bit manly.
10. Does singing about love and life and loss make you a more emotional person?
Not more emotional maybe, but it can add many more perspectives to life. My whole last season was littered with characters who die in a big bloody mess. In one case being eviscerated and strung from the rafters twitching, dripping in blood shortly before the character my wife was playing gets stabbed and shoved in a sack. To start with it's great fun, blood bags, fight scenes and harnesses. But after the 12th performance ... it can all sink in a little deeper than it should.
11. I hear you've lost weight: aren't opera singers supposed to have heft?
The stereotype of a fat opera singer is bollocks. Some people say that in a modern world opera singers need to be slim and beautiful to compete with movie stars but that's also bollocks. Anyone who has ever stood up in front of people to entertain them has had these pressures. It is true that part of the genetic lottery recipe of an opera singer calls for a strong body. But as Sir Donald Macintyre said to me, "fat doesn't sound". Rightly or wrongly, if we are honest with ourselves, as a society we enjoy looking at slim, sexy bodies, and as there are so many singers, directors can cast not only with their ears but with their eyes, too. I have lost 30kg in the last year with 10 to go. I did it for myself and my wife.
12. Do you think Dame Kiri gets a bum rap in New Zealand?
I have been really fortunate in recent times to have been guided by Dame Kiri. She has earned a great respect from me, and I respect her privacy. But I will say that she has been tremendously generous with her time, advice and supportive with her foundation. It's hard for non opera geeks to understand the gravity of her success. She was not only a superstar of her generation, but arguably the greatest for her voice type in the history of opera. And to have one of these great Kiwis struggling, sacrificing and climbing to the top of these ladders only to turn around and help pull up scruffy young singers like me out of a sense of national pride, is perhaps unique to New Zealand and something to be admired.
• La Traviata plays at Aotea Centre's ASB Theatre June 19-29.