"The soul should always stand ajar ready to welcome the ecstatic experience" is a quote from poet Emily Dickinson.

And the New Zealand Opera School's Opera and Aroha on the River concert on Thursday night delivered exactly that for music lovers — an ecstatic experience.

A wonderfully warm and balmy night saw the river bank by Taupo Quay fill with an eager audience of 1500 or more for the arrival of the waka from Putiki Marae. With a welcome from kaumatua John Maihi, the 21 students of the Opera school lined the top deck of the Waimarie paddle steamer.

A specially constructed pontoon clipped to the side of river boat ensured more stage space for performers, and the Putiki Wharanui joined with the students to sing the Swedish hymn Whakaaria MaiHow Great Thou Art — which has been translated into many languages, including te reo Maori.

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The students then performed Wagner's rousing Sailors Chorus, and within minutes hearts were full and thumping as former school alumni, tenor Amitai Pati — now world famous as part of Sol3 Mio — stood elegant and proud singing the aria Un ura Amorosa from Cosi Fan Tutte. He was sublime.

Moses Mackay on the PS Waimarie. Photo / Bevan Conley
Moses Mackay on the PS Waimarie. Photo / Bevan Conley

The setting of the boat, the waka, the river and the singers — along with members of an ensemble from Wanganui Brass — made for a marvellous scene, prompting a few eyes to moisten.

The audience was swelled by a few hundred who lined up outside the barrier fences and across Taupo Quay to listen to a memorable display of singing talent and savour an equally memorable night for Whanganui.

Pene Pati was absolutely the "young Pavarotti" as he sang La Fleur Que Tu M'avais Jetee from Bizet's opera Carmen, and he was followed by his cousin, baritone Moses Mackay, singing the ever-popular Toreador song with glittering panache.

Soprano Amina Edris (Pene's wife), in glorious voice, gave us Musetta's Waltz Song from Puccini's La Boheme.

Husband and wife, soprano Amina Edris and tenor Pene Pati, delighted the audience with their passionate duet.
Husband and wife, soprano Amina Edris and tenor Pene Pati, delighted the audience with their passionate duet.

When night fell, the Waimarie glowed in a myriad of colours, while the lights in the windows of the houses across on the hill shone like a back drop of lighted candles.

The river gleamed and the moon hung low ... it was a breathtaking atmosphere.

Amina and Pene, who perform with the San Francisco Opera Company, presented a powerful duet from Verdi's La Traviata, while Mackay returned for That's Amore, substituing "Whanganui" for "Napoli" to the delight of the crowd.

Kristin Darragh really rocked and roared as she delivered Kander and Ebb's Life Is A Cabaret, while the whole comapny came together for an intricate arrangement of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.

Manase Latu, Samson Setu, Deborah Rogers and Chelsea Dolman give voice on the Waimarie.
Manase Latu, Samson Setu, Deborah Rogers and Chelsea Dolman give voice on the Waimarie.

But the highlight was arguably when Pene and Amitai Pati and Moses Mackay came together as Sol3 Mio to sing and joke with humour and high spirits, and then announce the surprise appearance by one of the school's most acclaimed former students, tenor Simon O'Neill.

O'Neill acknowledged his debt to his time in Whanganui at the first ever NZ Opera School 25 years ago, and then treated us to a stirring rendition of the aria Nessum Dorma from Turandot by Puccini.

A glittering night to remember for Whanganui, as the Opera School winds up for 2019 with Saturday night's Great Opera Moments concert at the Royal Opera House.