She's starring in a ghost story but opera star Anna Leese tells Dionne Christian you can't predict life's genuinely chilling turns

Just days after starting rehearsals for the gothic opera The Turn of the Screw, soprano Anna Leese returned to her temporary Auckland home and sacred herself silly.

It is perhaps unwise, acknowledges the 38 year old, to binge watch Season 3 of The Handmaid's Tale after you've spent the day portraying a fearful woman in sole charge of two "odd" children in an isolated house you believe to be haunted.

Supposedly safe at home, Leese was upstairs looking down on a window that doesn't close and was certain someone was standing there. It's a scene straight from The Turn of the Screw, based on Henry James' 1898 horror novella, in which the governess – she's never named – believes she sees the ghost of a disreputable servant staring at her. She believes he is trying to "corrupt" the children, Miles and Flora.

Advertisement

"It's amazing how you absorb some of the mental state of the character that you're working on but, yes, I do freak myself out. I can't watch horror… It freaks me out. I get spooked."

So, why is one of our leading singers starring in an opera regarded as one of the spookiest? Indeed, the story is so thrilling and chilling that Netflix is adapting it – it'll be called The Haunting of Bly Manor – for the second part of its anthology series started by The Haunting of Hill House.

Leese describes the governess as a great role suited to her voice – like Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, she is a lyric soprano – and says it's an opera centred round a strong woman which makes it a dramatic and interesting part in general. And really who, besides Leese, doesn't love a good ghost story? It's a chance to perform for those who may not ordinarily make a night at the opera a priority.

Anna Leese, preparing to play Tatyana in NZ Opera's Eugene Onegin, back in 2009. Photo / Dean Purcell
Anna Leese, preparing to play Tatyana in NZ Opera's Eugene Onegin, back in 2009. Photo / Dean Purcell

In a 20 year career, Leese has performed roles like Musetta in Puccini's La boheme, Micaela in Carmen, Eugene Onegin's Tatyana, Fiordiligi in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and even Cleopatra. She's travelled the world, sung alongside the likes of Spanish tenor Jose Carreras and Dame Kiri (at Twickenham Stadium in 2005, when Jonah Lomu returned to rugby) and won numerous awards and accolades.

She could still be doing it all but Leese knows the genuine frightening things in life are those that you don't plan on and never imagine happening to you.

Around six years ago, after establishing herself in Europe, she returned to New Zealand with her husband, the dashing Italian winemaker Stefano Guidi. They wanted to start a family and thought NZ was the best place to do so but, given both could work in the southern and northern hemispheres, figured it would be a peripatetic life.

"I was like, 'I'll just travel with you and I'll accept gigs in both countries and make it work,' and that was the plan… I was always a planner. I had it all worked out. Right up to retirement."

And it was going according to plan. But when Leese was two weeks from giving birth to their son, Matteo, Guidi was diagnosed with the most aggressive form of motor neurone disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) with a probable life expectancy of just two more years.

The international opera community rallied round the young family. Benefit concerts were held in Auckland and London; Carreras himself supported the UK event. The couple moved to Dunedin, where Leese had studied opera, to be closer to family and support networks. She figured her singing days were over.

"I thought it would be forced upon me, not a choice that I would be able to make," she recalls. "I thought that was my only option – to drop everything. I thought, 'okay, my husband is sick and it's my job to look after him'. Nobody explained to me, 'actually you can have people come into your house and help you look after him'. When someone said that to me, several months in, I was just horrified. I was like, 'but that's my job! I'm his wife! I'm supposed to be the one looking after him.'

Advertisement

"I went through a pretty dramatic personal change and it was through trauma. I just closed off and became a new person, I suppose. What it's taught me is how very many people are struggling and how those people are actually pretty invisible until you find yourself in a similar situation. It's really opened up my eyes. I just used to assume that somebody in a wheelchair had somebody to look after them or that the government would provide access for them into their own homes or a bathroom but it just doesn't always happen."

Stefano Guidi, Anna Leese Guidi and baby Matteo at home in Warkworth just after learning of his ALS diagnosis. Photo / Doug Sherring
Stefano Guidi, Anna Leese Guidi and baby Matteo at home in Warkworth just after learning of his ALS diagnosis. Photo / Doug Sherring

About to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, the couple made a new plan to allow Guidi the best quality of life possible and for Leese to keep singing. He now resides in a supported living environment - Leese and Matteo visit nearly every day and he comes home at least once a week – and Leese takes a small number of roles, in New Zealand and Australia, and often with orchestras. She also teaches singing, saying it gives her real pleasure to help others along the path she took.

"Stefano knows that other people are dealing with the real problems of his illness and we just see him for social time. I think that's a much more functional way of being; we get to assume our normal relationship. I get to be his wife; Matteo gets to be his son rather than waiting for me to shower or feed his father…

"Neither of us wanted me to give up singing that because it's so much who I am. I am sure there will people in this world who would give up parts of themselves but I don't think that's actually a healthy thing to do. I think it's a helluva lot better for everybody to try to find a compromise that benefits everybody."

Leese acknowledges that's not possible for many caregivers, whom she describes as "the invisible ones" who give up much of themselves but get little of the care and attention needed.

"Probably for two years, I felt like I wasn't me anymore and that comes with being a new mum when, all of a sudden, it's about what the baby needs but it was also suddenly about what Stefano needed but there's thousands and thousands and thousands of caregivers who live this every day and many of them never get a break."

As a child and teenager, Leese learned valuable lessons about determination, perseverance and spirit through growing up in Woodville in a household headed by a single mother, Carolyn. A teacher and singer, Carolyn started several culture groups in the area and Leese says involvement was compulsory for her, her brother and sister.

"There wasn't childcare, so we had to go along. From the age of 1, I was going to all these things with my brother and sister and watching them sing. When I was old enough to sing, I started. It was just a way of life. I didn't think that it was at all unusual; I thought everybody's lives were like that. Mum would just come home and play the piano for hours and we would just sing and jump on the couches and sing along."

Money was short so Leese took on part time jobs, often a couple at a time, to pay for things like choir camps but it wasn't until she finished her undergraduate degree at the University of Otago that she decided to be an opera singer. Up until then, she thought she might want to star in musical theatre but says having red hair, being tall and having the "wrong sort" of voice diminished her chances.

"You can't be tall on the musical theatre stage as a girl because the tenors are all short and, very much more than in opera, on the musical stage they like to use that dramatic contrast between men and women with height," she says.

Don Giovanni: Mark Stone as Don Giovanni and Anna Leese as Donna Elvira in 2014.
Don Giovanni: Mark Stone as Don Giovanni and Anna Leese as Donna Elvira in 2014.

"In opera, it's different and you often get women who are taller than men cast because it's more about the sound and dramatic capabilities as well. As I was finishing my three year degree, I was looking into other career options then I started winning a couple of competitions in my final year and I suddenly realised maybe, 'maybe I can actually form a career out of this.'"

She just wasn't always very open about it.

"The first thing you ask someone is, 'what do you do?' and I used to just start making things up because if you say you're an opera singer, people go, 'Oh God….' It's a conversation ender. You get a lot of flak. People go, 'oh well, do you like that?' A lot of people don't. I knew quite early on that people didn't like it; I was always quite realistic about that."

She thinks, though, we'll like The Turn of the Screw. It's a different type of opera given a new twist by relocating Bly House to New Zealand, where the governess migrates to from the UK.

"It's a scary journey and she's turning up to really unknown circumstances. All she knows is what this mysterious man in an office told her about the job and said, 'you must never contact me under any conditions whatsoever.' She's doing it all alone..."

Leese stars alongside fellow acclaimed opera singers Jared Holt, Patricia Wright and Madeleine Pierard who returns from London to appear. The children's roles are shared by talented young performers Lukas Maher, Alexandros Swallow, Flora Olivia Forbes and Alexa Harwood; the music from the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

The Turn of the Screw, Wellington The Opera House, Thursday, October 5 and Sunday, October 7; ASB Waterfront Theatre, Friday, October 18, Sunday, October 20 and Wednesday, October 23.