Dozens of young singers have emerged from the New Zealand Opera School and on to the world's opera stages. LIN FERGUSON looks back over 25 years of the remarkable school that bases itself in Whanganui every January.

Nearly 40 years ago, Donald Trott had a vision.

It was the idea of a summer residential school for young aspiring opera singers to be coached by renowned international tutors with the aim of launching their careers on the world's stages.

A fanciful notion perhaps ... but his dream became reality in January 1994 in Whanganui.

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This month marks the New Zealand Opera School's 25th year - 25 years of remarkable success as talented students enhanced their vocal and theatrical prowess and now perform all over the globe in the demanding world of international opera.

And let's not forget the swell of immense pride Whanganui people have in this much-loved and in-demand annual school.

But the past 25 years haven't been without their challenges ... all were overcome with dignity and a measured manner by Trott, now resident in Whanganui and the school's executive chairman.

A former student at Wanganui Collegiate, he has made his old school home for two weeks each year for this prestigious study programme variously described as a "monastic musical retreat" or "opera boot camp''.

Simon O'Neill -- a young student at the first ever opera school; now a world-renowned tenor
Simon O'Neill -- a young student at the first ever opera school; now a world-renowned tenor

There are those who think opera is for sissies - a screeching, warbling noise sung in a foreign language and called music.

But the reality is that opera is about glorious voices infused with a musicality so fine it can leave you inspired, soothed, elated - triumphant - and filled with wonder that a human voice can release such a beautiful sound.

One of the school's most famous alumni is world-class Wagnerian tenor Simon O'Neill who insists he is still a small-town Kiwi boy from Ashburton.

O'Neill remembers turning up for the first opera school in 1994. He and another student had roared up the drive in an old Ford Escort keen to get on with the music, school life, and especially meeting girls.

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Mable the tram provided a makeshift stage when students presented Flash Opera at the River Traders market.
Mable the tram provided a makeshift stage when students presented Flash Opera at the River Traders market.

But his first lesson with Madame Virginia Zeani from the United States, a dramatic soprano regarded as one of the greats of the 20th century, fell well short. Simon, a baritone then, was told by Madame Zeani to return the next day as a tenor.

"You are not a baritone, you are a tenor - now go away and learn the tenor roles,'' she told him.

"I walked back to my dorm and wondered how on earth I was going to learn a complete set of music overnight.''

Even though full of anxiety, he remembered how he'd felt when he first heard the three tenors, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti, singing Nessun Dorma in 1990 at the Fifa World Cup in Rome.

"I loved those tenors ... I wanted to be one of them and decided this was my chance to work towards that.''

Opera school students feature in the chapel service at Wanganui Collegiate last year.
Opera school students feature in the chapel service at Wanganui Collegiate last year.

The now 46-year old, a big man with a mane of brown hair, sharp keen eyes and a rollicking sense of humour has become a New Zealand legend.

Though he may not be a household name here, he is amajor force in the opera world as one of the great ''heroic" (or heidentenor'') characters in German opera, and is one of the most in-demand voices on the international stage.

Other past students who have launched into international careers include Madeline Pierard (Lexus Song Quest winner 2005), Phillip Rhodes (Lexus Song Quest winner 2007), Amitai Pati (Lexus Song Quest winner, 2012) and Pene Pati (Australian McDonald's Aria winner, 2011).

Another success story for the school has been the meteoric rise of the Samoan brothers Pene and Amitai Pati and their cousin Moses Mackay who all attended the opera school six years ago.

Tenor Pene Pati of Sol3 Mio in the auditorium at Wanganui Collegiate School. Photo / Bevan Conley.
Tenor Pene Pati of Sol3 Mio in the auditorium at Wanganui Collegiate School. Photo / Bevan Conley.

The Pati brothers are operatic tenors and Mackay a baritone, and the threesome sang together initially for fun, offering a rousing version of Ten Guitars at the close of the 2015 opera school.

While studying at the Wales International Academy of Voice with world-renowed tutor Dennis O'Neill, they started singing as trio Sol3 Mio in pubs around Cardiff to earn extra cash to help pay their rent.

An agent from Universal Music heard them, booked them and their popularity has been phenomenal.

Incredible to think that Pene - described as a young Pavarotti- suffered such a bout of nerves when he was to sing Rudolfo in the Brindizi from La Traviata at a flash mob performance at the Whanganui River Market that he was taken to hospital and another young tenor had to replace him.

The trio have enjoyed huge record sales and are seen as having helped break down the barriers and stereotypes of the music.

The NZ Opera School enjoyed the patronage of legendary New Zealand diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa through the great singer's foundation which helped fund the school.

And in January 2016, Dame Kiri visited Whanganui to teach at the school.

She proved a hard taskmistress, visibly upsetting some of the students when she complained about aspects of their behaviour just before they were about to perform before the TV cameras.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa arrives at Whanganui Airport in 2016 to be welcomed by school executive chairman Donald Trott
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa arrives at Whanganui Airport in 2016 to be welcomed by school executive chairman Donald Trott

"You have to be tough in the opera world or you are not going to make it. Just because you can sing an aria does not make you an opera singer," was Dame Kiri's message.

"Without that dedicated commitment you won't survive in the opera world. Remember you don't choose this profession ... it chooses you."

Also during that visit she also revealed how she had been beaten by the nuns as a 12-year-old at convent school in Auckland.

The following year the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation pulled its funding from the opera school sparking concerns about its future.

The legendary Dame Kiri Te Kanawa works with students at the Opera School in Whanganui.
The legendary Dame Kiri Te Kanawa works with students at the Opera School in Whanganui.

However, Donald Trott allayed fears, working tirelessly to secure new financial backing from the Freemasons Foundation.

"Fortuately, with the Freemasons Foundation funding we will go from strength to strength,'' he said.

School director Jonathan Alver says the school is stronger than ever and the number of talented young opera singers coming out of New Zealand over recent six years was leaving other countries behind.

"The number of classical singers has certainly doubled over the past few years,'' he said.

And renowned singing coach Cesar Ulloa from San Francisco and acclaimed coach Della Jones from Wales told an audience last year how amazed they were at how young some of the singers were at the school, and how impressed they were with the new voices coming out of the Pacific and Polynesian churches.

A doyenne of the opera school is Bev Kirkwood who heads WOW (Whanganui Opera Week), a committee of local people committed to the school and its success.

NZ Opera Week in Whanganui -- Jonathon Alver, Bev Kirkwood and Donald Trott
NZ Opera Week in Whanganui -- Jonathon Alver, Bev Kirkwood and Donald Trott

KIrkwood said she stood by Trott's side from the very beginning - "I've always loved opera and I wanted to be part of it.''

In the early years, Kirkwood organised and catered spectacular opera school events at her then home Riverlands. Events that have never been forgotten.

Twelve years ago she formed a dedicated committee (WOW) and her team work tirelessly every year.

"I talked to friends and people who loved opera as much as I did," she said - almost immediately she had nine stalwarts by her side.

Committee members include Pat Cuniffe, Renata Scheider, Dougal MacIntosh, Pauline Calverley, Ian Kirk and Eric Hart.

"We are proud of what we do and very proud this great school is now well known overseas.''

International singing tutors Cesar Ulloa and Della Jones in conversation. Photo / Lin Ferguson
International singing tutors Cesar Ulloa and Della Jones in conversation. Photo / Lin Ferguson

To celebrate the school's 25th anniversary, a spectacular show will be staged on the Whanganui River on Thursday, January 17 (January 18 if it rains).

Costing more than $50,000, Opera and Aroha on the River has been in the planning for two years, with paddle steamer Waimarie and the Wairua creating a backdrop for the concert.

School alumni including the Pati brothers will be singing along with the 21 new students.

Donald Trott said it would be an occasion to make Whanganui people roud.

"We are very blessed with the unstinting support we have every year from the people of Whanganui. We could never have done it without them.''

*The 2019 New Zealand Opera School runs from Monday, January 7 to January 20, and includes six public performances.