Kiwi opera star Madeleine Pierard was studying to be a doctor when composer Jack Body inspired her to sing instead. The lyric soprano performs his work and Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna in this year's Auckland Arts Festival.

1 At age 6, you were diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and spent two years in and out of hospital. How did that change your outlook on life?

This probably sounds cheesy but I felt I must have survived for a reason and so I've spent my life searching for that reason. Being in isolation for most of the treatment was difficult but it was much worse for my four siblings because Mum was in hospital with me the whole time. They were looked after by our grandmothers and my oldest sister Janie. A lot of families are at a loss for what to do with their child when they come out of hospital. I did Camp Quality - an amazing experience which really helps kids to move on.

2 Growing up in Napier did you always want to be an opera singer?

Not at all. Because of my cancer experience, I wanted to be an oncologist or do stem cell research. I started a biomedical science degree but didn't finish because I was also studying music and found my affinity lay there. I haven't ruled out going to med school at some point.


3 When did you realise you could sing?

Not until I was studying composition at Victoria University with Jack Body. With his encouragement I began proper singing lessons. When you come from a family of musicians like I do, being able to sing wasn't seen as particularly unusual. My sister Anna was already studying opera in London. Mum was concerned about there being competition between us but she needn't have worried because we've always been totally supportive of one another. We did a Chamber Music New Zealand tour together in 2012 and sang Cosi Fan Tutte which I've never heard performed by actual sisters before.

4 After winning the Lexus Song Quest in 2005 you got a scholarship to study at the Royal Opera and have been based in London ever since. What have been your career highlights so far?

Becoming the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artist in 2010 was a remarkable moment because it was something I'd never considered attainable. Every moment on stage at the Royal Opera House has been amazing from being an understudy who got to jump on as Musetta in La Boheme to singing a big Rossini role. I don't think I've ever sung badly on that stage. It always feels so special.

5 You're singing Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna at the Auckland Arts Festival in March. Have you met him yet?

No, I'm really looking forward to it. My mother's very envious - she's a huge fan. Performers are expected to turn up a week ahead knowing the music inside out. Then the director tells us what they want out of our performance. To have the composer there is rare and quite a luxury. We're staging a concert version of the opera which was contentious when it was first performed at The Met because Rufus wrote it in French rather than the expected English. He's always been fascinated by French opera and pays homage to the style of the old masters like Massenet and Bizet.

6 You're also performing Jack Body's Passio at the Auckland Arts Festival with the New Zealand Chamber Choir and Auckland Chamber Orchestra. What can audiences expect?

It's a very beautiful reworking of an ancient piece of music which is something Jack Body's known for and one of the things that drew me to study with him. It's a collaborative piece which he curated with five other composers.

7 You began rehearsals for Nixon in China at last year's Auckland Arts Festival six days after giving birth to your daughter Eleanor. How on earth did you manage that?

It was a really amazing time. I had a home birth at my parent's house in Napier. They took our older daughter Chloe to the beach. It was just my husband and me - the midwife hadn't arrived yet. We were both really calm. Interestingly, I regained the five top notes in my range within an hour of giving birth.

8 You breastfed Eleanor during Nixon in China rehearsals. Is that unusual in the opera world?

I don't know. I just went ahead and did it. I like to think I was doing my part for normalisation. Opera New Zealand was very accommodating. I was able to feed during the musical rehearsals where we sit down. When we began dress rehearsals I asked the American conductor Joey Mechavich to let me know when he didn't need me for 15 minutes so I could go and feed. He said, "You don't need to ask, the baby takes priority". I'd already breastfed Chloe during coaching at the Royal Opera House. It's like one big family there anyway.

9 Did your childhood cancer affect your fertility?

There was an expectation that I wouldn't be able to have kids. I tried not to think about it because it was too depressing. When I got married, my sisters offered to be surrogates but the GP suggested my husband Michael and I try naturally first. Amazingly I got pregnant straight away. My sisters were both with me when I took the pregnancy test. We held hands and cried.

10 Your husband Michael Joel is a conductor and violinist. Has it been hard to juggle both your careers and parenthood?

Fortunately we've never had a clash of commitments. I don't know if that's serendipity or good management. We've shared parenting equally too. I had one of the most stressful experiences of my life recently when both kids were sick and Michael was in New Zealand. I was due to sing the main role in an opera by Schoenberg, who composed notoriously difficult music. I couldn't start rehearsals because I'd become really ill with a chest infection during a run of the Barber of Seville and had to conserve all my energy to perform nightly. My agent asked me to pull out but being the stubborn person that I am, I said 'no'. I had to learn it, rehearse it and stage it in less than two weeks. I pulled it off and got the best reviews I've ever had in the Guardian, the Times and Opera Now but it's not something I'd like to repeat.

11 How do you stay fit for opera singing?

I used to be a real gym junkie. I'd go for two hours a day, six days a week and saw a professional boxing trainer as well. I actually found singing much easier when I was pregnant because it loosened my abdominal muscles and gave me a freer sound. I still love boxing. I had my first class the other day and the rush was huge. I'm keen to get back to that level if I can find the time. Being fit's useful because so much is expected of you physically on stage these days.

12 Anything else you'd like to tick off your list of opera goals?

Singing Violetta in La Traviata for New Zealand Opera in Christchurch last year was a career highlight. I'd love to do another Violetta in the UK. Again, this is going to sound cheesy but I've already done more than I'd hoped my wildest dreams.

• Opera singer Madeleine Pierard in the Auckland Arts Festival 8 to 26 March 2017