Beautiful tone is one of the major keys to singing success.

The race is on for the one of New Zealand's premier music competitions, the Lexus Song Quest.

After five days working with head judge, distinguished Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny, 10 of our top young singers are tested in this weekend's semi-finals, broadcast on RNZ Concert live from Wellington.

Four proceed to next Saturday's Grand Final Gala in Auckland Town Hall, with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra accompanying arias, and Terence Dennis at the piano for lieder and artsong. Aucklanders Tavis Gravatt, Filipe Manu and Benson Wilson are among those vying for total prize money of $75,000.

Yvonne Kenny remembers the thrill of winning the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Award back in 1975.


"I was a rank outsider, entering just for the experience," she says, "but it started things off, along with a role in a big Donizetti concert. The Royal Opera House offered me an audition and, at 24, I joined the chorus."

The day-to-day pressures of Covent Garden proved success on the competition stage had to be "backed up with hard work and the resilience to take all the ups and downs along the way."

Kenny smiles at once longing for the technical excellence of Joan Sutherland alongside the dramatic power of Maria Callas. During the past 40 years, she has sung "nearly everything that suits my voice," from Handel and Mozart to Richard Strauss and Britten.

Once she might have longed to play the ultimate diva, Floria Tosca, "but I sang one aria in concert and realised that it was well beyond my comfort zone - I'm not a Puccini singer."

As a sought-after teacher in London, Kenny is concerned that young singers are not tempted into unsuitable repertoire.

"You can get away with this material in the studio, but not in the theatre," she advises. "When roles are too heavy, you start pressing your voice to get it out into the hall, and the sound takes on an unpleasant edge."

Kenny's dictum is to never sing louder than beautiful and she worries about singers who shift away "from the ideal of a pure, resonant beauty of tone". "I notice that too many want to spread the tone and dig it in, getting it fat and loud, and I'm not very interested in that."

The best guarantee of success is simple: beautiful tone and real communication with the audience. It should come from within you," Kenny stresses.


"This creates an individuality that will really make an audience sit up and listen."
She admires the way in which the Lexus Song Quest insists competitors offer both operatic aria and lieder or artsong.

"The one informs the other," she says. "The detail of the artsong is like a miniature version of the big operatic presentation. Opera may stretch us vocally, but the other brings out expressive detail and demands a more subtle journey."

A popular feature of the biennial Lexus Song Quest is the masterclasses with the head judge, which semi-finalists will take with Kenny on the day after the big event. Held in the more intimate venue of the Town Hall Concert Chamber, they are free and offer the opportunity to see and hear this music working at a nuts-and-bolts level.

Kenny looks forward to them, determined they will be "a positive experience, as singers can be so vulnerable in a masterclass, being publicly scrutinised." Yet, there are benefits to be had by all, she points out.

"Not only for the performer, but also for the other singers as well as dedicated audience members who can learn a great deal and develop their understanding of an important art."

Talking competitions, Nikki Chooi, 2013 Michael Hill International Violin Competition, is now concertmaster of the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, not only one of the most versatile of the Big Apple bands, but one of the busiest during the opera season.

What: Lexus Song Quest Grand Final Gala

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Saturday, July 23 at 7.30pm; the Lexus semi-finals are broadcast on RNZ Concert at 7pm tonight and tomorrow. The Lexus Masterclasses are at the Town Hall Concert Chamber, Sunday, July 24, 2pm-5pm