Natasha Wilson knew from an early age she could sing. Family lore records her as a toddler taking to the stage and singing her ABCs, which would have been fine had the occasion not been her grandfather's tangi.

Wilson's late father, Brian, could sing a bit, too. He was vocalist and bass player in Naked Blade, a metal band that toured the country in the 1980s and 90s. Wilson's own tastes ran more to pop and r'n'b, and she'd mimic the vocal pyrotechnics of Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera.

But Wilson (Te Arawa/Ngāpuhi) and her dad shared a love of show tunes. Wilson, her sister and their father would listen to music theatre and soundtracks in the car, singing along, harmonising. Wilson calls this her early music education and credits her excellent ear to these youthful automotive concerts.

Then, when she was about 12, Brian brought home a recording of The Phantom of the Opera. Wilson fell in love with the aria Think of Me. For the first time, she appreciated the beauty of a classically trained voice.

Advertisement

This month, she sings the role of Zerlina in Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's concert performance of Don Giovanni.

"I haven't always wanted to sing opera, I've just always wanted to sing," Wilson says. "It wasn't until university that I thought I could make a career in opera. If you'd asked me two or three years ago, I would never have thought I'd be playing Zerlina right now."

In those two or three years, Wilson's musical development has leapt ahead. She's completed her degree at the University of Auckland, studying with soprano Morag Atchison, a mentor from Wilson's school days at Westlake Girls High.

And since the Herald last spoke to her, just ahead of an early 2018 Auckland Arts Festival appearance in Leonard Bernstein's operetta Candide, Wilson has earned a postgraduate diploma from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

She says San Francisco made her a more rounded artist.

"I was really able to focus on the skills I needed and wanted to better my performance, like using my body as efficiently as possible," she says. Wilson pays tribute to her New Zealand teachers, particularly Atchison -"she made me the soprano I am today" - but says she learned things in San Francisco that weren't offered at home.

"I had classes in stage combat and [relaxation-through-posture method] Alexander Technique and acting. In New Zealand we don't get stage combat and unless you apply to do an acting course, it's not often you get hands-on, one-to-one acting lessons."

She soon returns to the US as a resident artist with the Pittsburgh Opera, a two-year programme for emerging singers, which will give her further stage experience and enable her to broaden her repertoire. But before that, there's a Mozart opera to worry about.

Advertisement

This is Wilson's debut as Zerlina, a character whose portrayal tends to fall into one of two categories: innocent flirt or flint-eyed social climber.

"There is some innocent flirting but I feel she knows exactly what she wants," says Wilson. "She loves [fiancé] Masetto but there are things she likes and Don Giovanni presents himself in a way she finds very attractive."

Wilson's Masetto in this performance is Morgan Pearse who, along with old mentor Morag Atchison, stole the show in NZ Opera's recent Barber of Seville. Wilson and Pearse have worked together before, when she was Giannetta – another flirt – to his Belcore in last year's L'elisir d'amore.

A light lyric coloratura soprano, the Italianate operas of Donizetti and Mozart suit Wilson's voice perfectly; she is particularly drawn to the latter composer, who was famous for stretching his sopranos to breaking point.

Although she's looking forward to her debut as Zerlina, it's another of Mozart's heroines she loves most, Le Nozze di Figaro's (flirty) Susannah, which she performed in San Francisco.

"It's one of the most difficult roles to learn because there's so much of it, and you're on stage two and a half hours, but Mozart clearly loved that part because he put Susannah everywhere and then leaves her with the most beautiful aria at the end, Deh vieni, non tardar, which is my favourite thing to sing."

Famously, Figaro was Kiri Te Kanawa's breakthrough opera, though in the role of the Contessa. Did Wilson, who as a recipient of the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation development programme award, meet Dame Kiri ahead of her San Francisco trip, ask for any tips?

"I didn't. Talking to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa," Wilson lets out a long breath, "I was kind of fan-girling."

Lowdown
What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Opera in Concert: Mozart's Don Giovanni
Where and When: Auckland Town Hall, Friday July 19.