Behind the scenes: As the Auckland Arts Festival and New Zealand Festival in Wellington continue, the Herald speaks to some of our leading choreographers and dancers, theatre-makers, playwrights and poets, musicians and singers about what makes them tick and what can we expect to see from them at our biggest arts festivals.

In what seems like the blink of an eye, Natasha Wilson transforms from a 24-year-old Aucklander in her first year of fulltime work into an 18th-century serving maid.

Wilson isn't working in hospitality at some sort of themed eatery; instead, she's following a decade-long dream that means she can write "opera singer" on her CV. This year, she's a Dame Malvina Major Emerging Artist (EA) and will receive coaching, career guidance and performance opportunities during New Zealand Opera's 2018 season.

Already, there's a role in NZ Opera's upcoming Auckland Arts Festival (AAF) show Candide, in which she plays a young woman called Paquette. Wilson will also spend part of this year touring schools with a short adaptation of The Elixir of Love and, midyear, appears in a mainstage production of the same opera.

Advertisement

She has long wanted to sing and she struggles to answer if you ask what an alternative career path might be. "I don't know. I would be working with people, I think. But I'm not quite sure, actually. This has always been my goal."

She has already worked with New Zealand music legend Tim Finn on a proposed new opera, Star Navigator, about Captain James Cook and Tahitian navigator Tupaia (NZ Opera hopes to stage it in 2020) and had a small role in The Mikado.

She has performed overseas, too. After graduating in 2016 from the University of Auckland with a Bachelor of Music (Hons), majoring in classical vocal performance, she was asked by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra to be soprano soloist in its Spanish Baroque concert series.

After stellar reviews, the orchestra invited her back to sing in its Bittersweet Obsessions concert, featuring Claudio Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and Bach's Coffee Cantata. She isn't letting those glowing reviews go to her head, simply saying it was exciting and she learned a lot. Her time as an EA will provide more chances for this type of exposure.

"It kind of all starts from here and, hopefully, that experience will give the platform needed to go to other places."

One day — many years in the future — Wilson would like to play the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. For now, she is focusing on learning her craft with small but significant roles like Paquette.

Wilson is one of a growing number of young New Zealanders, from a wide range of backgrounds, deciding classical singing is for them. They're helped by things like the EA opportunity and the fact two of the world's best sopranos — Dame Malvina Major and Dame Kiri te Kanawa — paved the way.

That's an understatement: Dames Malvina and Kiri didn't just pave the way, they more or less built the road now becoming much travelled.

Advertisement

I meet Wilson at the converted Parnell warehouse home to New Zealand Opera — and its vast array of props, costumes and wigs. Although Wilson's transformation into Paquette may seem quick, NZ Opera's head of wigs and make-up, Charlie Oswin, has put months of work into the "look", not least the copper-coloured, spiral-curled wig that will cover Wilson's dark hair. It has been curled by hand, soaked, baked in an oven to set the curls, then styled appropriately.

Opera singer Natasha Wilson in NZ Opera's wig room. NZ Herald photograph: Jason Oxenham
Opera singer Natasha Wilson in NZ Opera's wig room. NZ Herald photograph: Jason Oxenham

Her costume is one of 60 and each will have passed through the hands of wardrobe head Holly Leighton. Wilson wears it all well and is clearly excited about joining Candide.

When the soprano steps on stage, she follows in the footsteps of her late father. Sort of.

Brian Wilson, who died last year, was a heavy metal singer in bands like Naked Blades and Bastet. His daughter says he would have made a great operatic tenor but he chose another path.

"He absolutely adored musical theatre and encouraged me to go into classical music," she explains. "Heavy metal music is a lot like classical music, they're both quite complicated. When I was 12, my dad bought a DVD of Phantom of the Opera, which he'd loved since it came out; I heard the aria Think of Me and I wanted to sing like that.

"I'd wanted to be a singer since I was a toddler but going into opera, classical singing, that didn't happen until I was 12 or 13 when I realised I liked doing it."

Wilson was about to start Westlake Girls' High School and she took advantage of every opportunity to sing. She joined school choirs, took subjects related to music and, outside school, diligently studied technique with singing teacher Morag Atchison.

It is astounding to hear Wilson go from talking normally to singing; to realise that the beautiful sound that, unamplified, fills most of NZ Opera's headquarters, comes from a human being.

"I love the feeling of singing classically. It's resonant and you carry more than you can when you are just singing, say, like a pop singer would, and you don't need a microphone.
"It's complex music and there's a reason for every note in opera, particularly in Mozart and music like that, and there's so much history in opera.

"That's one of the main reasons why I love it so much because you have to research every aspect of it. I like the fact opera is from hundred of years ago but now it's being updated and it's becoming more accessible for audiences of today, which is really exciting."

If she could get one message out to non-operagoers, it would be to assure them although the art form is from 16th-century Italy, it isn't as complicated as they may think.

Wilson likens it to musical theatre, saying all the elements — story-telling, larger-than-life characters, live music and props and costumes — are there.

She believes Candide is one of the most entertaining. Based on a 1759 novella by French philosopher Voltaire, it takes the audience on a round-the-world romp as the hero, Candide, is banished from his homeland for daring to fall in love with the wrong girl. Around the world he goes — a sort of get-over-the-heartbreak OE — meeting weird and wonderful characters and facing all manner of trials and tribulations.

NZ Opera describes is as "part opera, part musical and entirely irreverent, drawing on everything from European operetta to Latin American dance rhythms". Wilson, giggling, says it's ridiculously fun, lavish and extravagant and will appeal to anyone who likes opera, musical theatre, comedy and just having a satisfying night out.

And that, she says, is how art should be.

"It's a universal thing that everyone can access. It's so full of history and has been the platform for expressing so many progressive ideals. It builds on those to become the culmination of everything. It's the basis of our culture and one of the most important things to living life."

A bit about Candide: It's a comic operetta — so it's shorter and less serious than an opera — with music by Leonard Bernstein, one of the 20th century's greatest composers, who is perhaps best known for writing the West Side Story score. Voltaire's satirical tale of mindless optimism comes to life. Bernstein's brilliant score draws on everything from European operetta to Latin American dance rhythms. We follow our hero and his sweetheart, Cunegonde, as they journey through a mad and chaotic world populated by a seemingly endless cast of vicious, greedy, lustful and manipulative characters.

Candide plays at the Auckland Arts Festival, Great Hall at the Auckland Town Hall, March 23-25.