The Merola Opera Program: it's something young opera singers imagine attending; the dream that comes before the one about stepping onto the great opera stages of the world.

Held in the Northern Hemisphere summer in San Francisco, Merola attracts hundreds of young hopefuls vying for one of about 23 places (for singers) or, even rarer, five for apprentice coaches and one apprentice stage director.

The chosen few take part in masterclasses and performances designed to help them become professional artists among the best in the world. What's more, it's all paid for by Merola, which started in 1957 and is supported by some of San Fran's leading arts organisations.

Now cross the world to Hamilton: the 'Tron, with a river running through it, it's New Zealand's foremost farming service centre surrounded by cattle grazing on hectares and hectares of pasture farmed by families who are diehard Chiefs rugby supporters. Right?

That's only one part of the story; the clichéd image many have of the Waikato's main town. Spend any time there - even drive through it - and you'll see it's a fast maturing urban centre with a diversifying economy and rapidly growing cultural sector.

It's now host to a number of festivals, music and theatre productions and film events. So while the following may make you think, 'who knew?', it's not all together surprising.

The University of Waikato, home to the Conservatorium of Music, this year added a unique new course - the only one of its kind in the country and the closet our young opera singers get to Merola without leaving home.

The Post-Graduate Certificate in Opera Studies is an intensive 14 week course for opera stars of the future who are either pre or post an overseas audition. It prepares them for what life can be like as a working opera singer in one of the world's great companies.

This year's participants included baritone Clinton Fung, who was part of the New Zealand Opera's nationwide tour of the Elixir of Love; Sir Howard Morrison Scholar and Hillary Medalist Blaire White; Eliza Boom, recent winner of the Becroft Grand Opera and North Shore Aria Competitions, Kolitha Jayatunge, Helene Holman, Amy Thomas, Noah Filimoehala, Anna Mahon and Cecily Shaw.

One of our most renowned opera singers, Dame Malvina Major, set up the course and says she would have loved the opportunity to participate in a programme like the post-grad certificate when she started.

"Back then, the only option you had really was to go overseas so that's what I did," says Dame Malvina, who left New Zealand in the early 1960s for London and went onto to travel and sing all around the world.

Now Professor of Voice at the University of Waikato, Dame Malvina is no stranger to training young singers. She started the Dame Malvina Major Foundation in 1992 to help talented young performing artists achieve their potential.

The foundation does that by providing financial help, performance opportunities and professional guidance as emerging performers prepare for professional careers. It offers a range of grants, prizes and scholarships, including the Young and Emerging Artists Programme with New Zealand Opera.

These work like an internship, allowing young artists to work with professionals in the industry and see first-hand what's involved with being a professional opera singer. They take part in main stage productions and receive vocal, stagecraft and language coaching.

The idea for a post-grad certificate, a more intense vocationally focused course, followed discussions with the likes of NZ Opera Company general director Stuart Maunder. They saw a "gap" in training between finishing studies and becoming emerging or young artists.

"I thought about how I could help bridge this gap and designed the course to be intensive, to subject students to the real-world pressures of working with a big opera company," Dame Malvina says.

It was decided to run the course in the first part of the year because that's a quieter time in the international opera calendar. In three months, students learn more about musical styles and interpretation, stagecraft - preparing for roles, movement, acting, conversational dialogue - and languages and diction.

Guest tutors included some of the country's finest opera singers - Simon O'Neill, Isabel Cunningham, Anna Leese, Patrick Power, Helen Medlyn, Jenny Wollerman and Anna Pierard among them - as well as visiting international teachers.

They also performed in at the Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts. Overlooking Knighton Lake at the University of Waikato's Hamilton campus, the award-winning building opened in 2001 with teaching and performance facilities for music, drama, dance and kapa haka as well as exhibition space. It's a stunning centre, one of the jewels in Hamilton's crown.

Dame Malvina says the idea was to work-shop a production and put it together in an intensive six-week time-frame. Mozart's comic opera, The Marriage of Figaro, was chosen as the Conservatorium of Music annual opera production.

"Unlike a professional opera concert, The Marriage of Figaro is the accumulation of a learning period and a showcase of how an opera is put together."

It received positive reviews, succeeding in Dame Malvina's aim to give the audience a glimpse into what happens behind the scenes, as well as the difficulties faced by budding opera singers.

Now assessing the success of the inaugural course, Dame Malvina says it will most certainly continue with places for a maximum of 12 students aged 23 and older.

"Most international programmes don't take anyone younger than 23 when voices are, in the most part, developed," she says. "They're most certainly too young when they're aged 17 - 21 so this will continue as a post-graduate programme.

"I hope we really begin to open the doors and give opportunities to young New Zealanders."