Opera was not part of my life before Whanganui.
Growing up in a working class family in Wainuiomata, the background soundtrack was Charlie Pride or Kenny Rogers. Opera seemed the very apex of high culture: impenetrable and intimidating.
Given that, I had to be dragged to my first Whanganui Opera Week master class in 2013. My friend was adamant: it was wonderful and I'd love it.
And to my surprise, I did and I've been going ever since. The public master classes were a fascinating introduction to what is still, to me, a baffling art form. They've led me to appreciate the sheer power and possibility of the human voice and to ruminate on its primal appeal.
(Good grief, I wept a little as the final notes of Hallelujah faded into the darkness near the end of the performance on the river. That sound entirely bypassed my rational mind, calling up a response from a far more ancient part of my brain.)
But back to 2013. I watched my first master class with a Feldenkrais teacher; I trained as a yoga teacher. Movement training leaves you automatically attuned to the way people inhabit their bodies, how they move.
I was struck by how the whole body is involved in producing sound like this - especially given the tutor that year was Paul Farrington, known for his use of unconventional props like Swiss balls!
(I do wince at the high heels most of the women wear to perform. Teetering on the balls of your feet creates a cascading impact on alignment of the pelvis and spine that must also be felt in the diaphragm; I wonder at the challenge it presents for singing. I was charmed to see one of the men perform this year in bare feet; a big man, he seemed so literally grounded.)
As I return each year, I appreciate the audience as well as the students; those watching are generous and encouraging. Some students are noticeably nervous and you can feel the goodwill in the room urging them on.
The audience is also notably very old. What does this mean for the future of the event? I wondered what the organisers were or could be doing to introduce new, younger generations of patrons to opera. Turns out I probably needn't worry.
New Zealand Opera School director Jonathan Alver thinks the audience at the master classes in particular is changing, becoming younger and more diverse.
The numbers across the event are also steadily increasing. Whanganui Opera Week committee member Renate Schneider laughs to recall how delighted the organisers were when 50 people came to the first concert at Heritage House. Now it regularly attracts more than 200. Between 2500-3000 tickets were sold to events across the fortnight this year.
Renate says the elderly audience is a feature at any opera event. It's too expensive for younger people, plus she reckons appreciating opera takes patience and the willingness to do some homework - like reading the story of the opera beforehand. It also requires free time, a scarce commodity for younger people.
Jonathan says there will always be a new generation of people in their 70s and 80s to make up the audience. I was interested to hear from him about the dynamic American opera scene.
New operas are being written and widely performed - such as an operatic version of the film Dead Man Walking - and these are drawing in a younger audience. (There's also been a burst of interest in musical theatre, which he attributes to the TV series Glee!)
The Whanganui Opera Week committee are hard-working volunteers; some, like its chairwoman Bev Kirkwood, have been involved since the event's inception. It's an impressive commitment, as is that of NZ Opera School executive chairman Donald Trott.
Renate is happy that several younger women have joined the committee, appreciating their fluency with the internet and social media. The event has had its own Facebook page for several years, although it's not very busy. (There's possibly some confusion or overlap, as the NZ Opera School also has a Facebook profile.)
It does make me hesitant to make suggestions that would involve more work for those volunteers ... but here goes.
In the master classes, the students do a lovely job of introducing the aria they are about to sing and describing the action in the opera at that point. But, if you're not familiar with opera, it's hard to understand or remember. It would be great to have details of the aria printed on the programme for future reference.
I'd also be interested to read a short biography of each student, either on the WOW website or Facebook page. Writing a short professional bio for themselves would be a good learning experience for the students.
Most of all, I'd love to see NZOS students squeeze in a visit to one of the city's low-decile schools. To hear the opera students sing, and talk about their aspirations? That may well be an eye-opening experience. I can only wonder what a little eight-year-old Rachel would have made of such a visit.
Most of all, if you have never attended an NZOS master class, do consider going next year. You don't have to already love opera to be wowed by it.
■Rachel Rose is a Whanganui-based writer. www.facebook.com/rachelrose.writer