You know you're doing pretty well when Gandalf himself, Sir Ian McKellen, asks if he can come backstage and meet you after your concert. And that's exactly what happened to Sol3 Mio last week.
The star of stage and screen even asked if he could have a photo with Pene Pati, Amitai Pati and Moses Mackay, and if they could all pretend to be singing together. How's that for surreal, eh?
It's just one moment in a year of many amazing moments for the world-conquering, opera-singing trio who have stolen the hearts of Kiwis (their self-titled debut album, which was released in November last year has just become the biggest-selling New Zealand album for the second year in a row), and brought tears to the eyes of many in Australia, the United States and Britain, where McKellen saw them in London. Their story of starting out singing in rest homes, gaining the support of their families and communities despite their limited means, and their tale of reaching great heights in studying internationally have all been well told in television interviews and documentaries, as well as their own book.
But the three of them had no idea how successful Sol3 Mio would become when they came up with the idea in 2012.
The two brothers and their cousin initially formed the group as a casual way to raise funds to further their studies at the Wales International Academy of Voice. As all three were elite opera singers, hand-picked for success by Dennis O'Neill, they thought perhaps they could perform a few concerts as a trio and raise some extra cash.
But, sitting cosily together on a tour bus in Brighton as they skype TimeOut, just before returning home for Christmas, the jovial Samoan lads momentarily struggle for words as they try to describe their experiences over the past 12 months.
"2014 has been insane. I actually can't comprehend how many things we've done this year," Pene says.
"When I think about it, only November last year is when the album came out, and then we've just taken on the world at 100km an hour, from literally nothing. We've been predominantly in the UK, although we were in the US for a while too, and we've done a New Zealand tour, and Australia. The scary thing is, it seems like it's only the beginning. It's hard to tell because we didn't expect anything from this."
Sol3 Mio feature on the cover of this week's TimeOut:
The contrast between their first New Zealand tour, which they organised entirely on their own, and the tour they embarked on in March this year is, for Amitai, a stark measurement of the rapid changes in their lives.
"The New Zealand tour was definitely a highlight this year. It was the first time we'd toured professionally, and it was a huge difference from the first time we attempted to do our own tour around New Zealand. That first tour that we did all on our own was really difficult, so I think it was really good for us to experience what it was like to be on our own tour, and not managing it all ourselves. It's something we thought we'd never do."
The fact they've managed to bring opera back to the masses in New Zealand - playing to sold-out audiences of all ages up and down the country, creating a multi-platinum-selling hit record, and earning themselves a standing ovation when they performed at the recent NZ Music Awards - without compromising the integrity of their art, is not lost on the trio.
The phrase "I don't really like opera, but Sol3 Mio knocked my socks off" is something they're undoubtedly hearing more and more, and that's been extremely encouraging for the group.
"I think that's been the ignition for the group really, spreading the word, spreading opera," Pene says. "And seeing it happen is a testimony to what we're doing, and it's amazing to feel like we're doing something right. Opera's not the easiest thing to take to the masses, and to be able to introduce it to families, to kids, for us to see that next generation at least being open to that kind of genre is touching. I hope we get to keep it strong."
Balancing the very technical, very difficult art of operatic performance with the art of entertaining a crowd is something Sol3 Mio excel at, but it's not as effortless as they make it look.
"People sometimes assume that it's easy for us to sing opera, you know, 'It's just your voice, sing for me.' But it's hard, and the three of us have studied for quite a long time now to perfect the art, and we're still learning, we'll never stop learning" Moses says. "But when it comes to performing we understand the limitations of opera, and how people experience it, so we like to explain what the music is about, or let them know what the story is behind the song, whatever language it's in. We like to make sure everyone feels connected to it.
"And when it comes to the comedy, I can tell you now, that's just us, it's all unscripted, we're just having fun, having a laugh, enjoying ourselves."
Not that they're taking the mickey with opera, or making fun of it - they're very particular about making sure the integrity of these compositions remains intact, because they love Puccini as much as any opera buff.
"We're primarily opera singers, and we do try to stay true to the operatic repertoire, in terms of the emotions behind it," Amitai says. "Nessun Dorma for example, we try to make sure we take that seriously. So we add a few bits and pieces of comedy where we can in the opera songs, but I think keeping true to the spirit of the music is what moves people too."
All three of them are still working on solo careers, but the boys understand why their power as a trio has struck people in such an immediate way - they have an appealing underdog story, a friendly open nature that people are attracted to, and a bond between them that can't be manufactured.
"I think that's what makes us work so well together," Moses says. "We know what each other is going to do before we do it. When we come to arranging the songs, the three of us just sit down, and it kind of just happens. Being family makes a huge difference."
And those moments when the three of them are on a stage, in front of thousands, their voices vibrating in perfect harmony and soaring through the roof, well, it's a pretty good feeling.
"Everything feels peaceful to me," says Pene, "because you're in the midst of your art form, and you forget about nerves, you forget about work, you forget about your learning scheme, you forget about stress, you're just in that spot, lost in the moment. I guess you feel content, you're on stage doing something right."
"There's this huge sense of security when you're singing together," Amitai says. "You don't have to worry about the music, you don't have to worry about how it's going to sound, because you know when the three of you are singing together it's going to be right. So you're thinking about trying to impress people really. Making it as epic as possible, as memorable as possible, pouring yourself into it."
"And there's an overwhelming sense of pride," Pene says. "It makes you reflect a little bit in that moment, on where you started and where you've ended up."
Who: Pene Pati, Amitai Pati and Moses Mackay as Sol3 Mio.
Where and when: Performing tomorrow at Black Barn Vineyards in the Hawkes Bay, and Sunday, December 21 at Villa Maria Estate in Auckland. Their tour continues next year on February 23 at Regent on Broadway in Palmerston North, February 24 at Napier Municipal Theatre, February 26 at ASB Arena in Tauranga, February 27 at Claudelands Arena in Hamilton, February 28 at TSB Bowl of Brooklands in New Plymouth, March 3 at Stadium Southland in Invercargill, March 4 at Dunedin Town Hall, and March 5 at Horncastle Arena in Christchurch.
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