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Strains of Mozart tumble down the staircase of Auckland Opera Studio's rather grand premises. Patrice Wilson is rehearsing Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte for its Sunday performance, another collaborative venture with the Auckland Chamber Orchestra; I arrive in time for the Act One Finale.

There is a real vibrancy here. Even in rehearsal mode, voices have a bloom to them, with the celebrated Pierard sisters, Madeleine and Anna, paired with young Kawiti Waetford (pictured) and Tom Atkins as their wayward lovers. Gas masks come on and off throughout the performance. "We're doing a bit of anthrax," is director Wilson's wry comment. "It's a pretty timeless story," she says. "The business of finding one's own voice and what love's all about is a very human dilemma, not just a female one."

Wilson's take on Mozart will not all be as adrenalin-charged as today, although she is pleased the opera's long, involved Italian recitatives have been replaced by snappy English dialogue. She sees Cosi as a "a surreal landscape of inner confusion with moments a little like A Midsummer Night's Dream" and explains how "heightened physical activity combined with Zen-like stillness will create juxtapositions of beauty and madness".

It sounds intriguing, and there is a certain freneticism in today's rehearsal. In fact, it is difficult to repress chuckles at the prone heroes shuddering when Barbara Graham's Despina applies a touch of casual ECT, under the stern eye of Joel Amosa's Don Alfonso. For Wilson, Don Alfonso is far more than just a world-weary, cynical misogynist. "This man is an evolutionary force," she says. "He throws these people into experiences because, if you want to live, you've to get out and try things."


And sometimes, the sheer physicality of the performances can, in a surreal way, supply a setting for the opera. "These are recessionary times," Wilson says. "You don't have a million-dollar budget and sets being flown in. But you can almost create sculpture with bodies, especially with such a young energetic cast. This production is not just about their singing skills, but it also challenges them to be part of the set."

Kawiti Waetford would certainly be a handsome asset to any set; I first caught the young baritone last year, sharing a stage with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in her Rugby World Cup concert. Since then, he has been a Lexus Song Quest finalist, carrying off the Masterclass Scholarship - quite an achievement for a third-year voice student who turned 22 on the day he met his Cosi colleagues. Waetford grew up in the kapa haka tradition. "It may involve a different use of the voice," he explains. "But the same basic performance principles hold."

Now, aiming at further studies in Britain next year, Waetford is pleased to have chosen an operatic path. "I love telling stories, and these are timeless stories I can really relate to," he muses. "There's something about singing opera, without a microphone. You send your voice out into space in such a way that it really envelops you. It's magic."

What: Cosi fan Tutte
Where and when: Mercury Theatre, tomorrow at 7pm