Hundreds of superb young singers have graduated from the New Zealand Opera School on to the world’s opera stages. This remarkable school, based in Whanganui, will celebrate its 30th year in January 2024. Lin Ferguson talks to its founder, executive chairman and director Donald Trott who had the vision nearly 40 years ago and still stands strong at its helm.
As summer rolls in, Whanganui music lovers will once again be treated to the heartstopping young talents of the New Zealand Opera School.
Selected from large auditions and keen to sing many and varied arias, the 21 students representing the 2024 school on January 7-21 will again thrill audiences in Whanganui.
January 2024 marks 30 years of this illustrious residential school based at Whanganui Collegiate School.
The school has enhanced the vocal and theatrical prowess of young New Zealand singers who have gone on to study overseas and make their mark in international opera.
Trott said the school was always his dream.
“The school is a team effort and I’m grateful to everyone who has walked alongside me over the last 30 years.”
Not forgetting the swell of immense pride the people of Whanganui people have had in this much-loved and in-demand annual school since its inception.
But the past 30 years haven’t been without their challenges – challenges that have been overcome with dignity and a measured manner by Trott.
A former student at Whanganui 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”.
For the upcoming school, some of the world’s best tutors have been secured, including Della Jones, Welsh mezzo-soprano and coach at the English National Opera Studio; Glenn Winslade, Opera Australia’s highly regarded technical voice coach; and Japan-born American soprano Nikki Li Hartliep who has performed and taught at conservatoires around the world, including New York, San Francisco and Florida.
The school is supported by the Freemasons Foundation, Creative New Zealand, Whanganui & Partners and many individuals in Whanganui and throughout New Zealand.
Over the years some students have won the Lexus Song Quest, launching them into international careers.
As Dame Kiri Te Kanawa said when she tutored at the school in 2016, singers have to be tough in the opera world or they are not going to make it.
“Without that dedicated commitment, you won’t survive in the opera world. Remember, you don’t choose this profession ... it chooses you.”
The school is now stronger than ever and the number of young singers coming out of New Zealand has stunned tutors over the past 10 years.
Jones said when she was last at the school she was amazed at how young some of the singers were, especially the voices coming out of the Pacific and Polynesian churches.
School alumni include renowned international tenor Pene Pati, soprano Amina Edris, Simon O’Neill, Madeline Pierard, Phillip Rhodes, Samson Setu, Bianca Andrew, Amitai Pati and Stephen Diaz.
“With the two weeks of intensive and specialised tuition, this has resulted in an overwhelming number of internationally acclaimed singers who have come back here multiple times - we are very, very proud,” Trott said.
A much-loved story is the formation and success of the popular trio Sol3 Mio, comprising brothers Pene and Amitai Pati with cousin Moses McKay - all former students.
At the final students-only concert in 2012, the three sang the pop song Ten Guitars for a laugh and brought the house down.
The three left New Zealand for the acclaimed Cardiff Music Academy in Wales, headed by illustrious operatic voice coach Professor Dennis O’Neill.
They decided they would give their singing trio a go around the pubs in Cardiff and try to bring in funds to help pay their rent.
One night just a few weeks in, an agent from Universal in London heard them, loved them and the rest is history. Sol3 Mio couldn’t go wrong and, as recording artists as well as occasional performers, are still hugely popular, especially in New Zealand.
However, the Samoa-born Pati brothers, both tenors, stuck with their operatic dreams, leaving Sol3 Mio as their part-time success story. The brothers are singing leading roles on opera stages internationally from New York to Paris and London, with Pene Pati described by a London critic as a young Pavarotti.
In 2024 a strong, committed team heads the school’s administration along with Trott: administrator Debbie Macpherson, deputy director Ian Campbell and digital director Jack Bourke, with recording and sound expert John Wansborough.
Whanganui Collegiate School headmaster Wayne Brown said Collegiate and the NZ Opera School had a wonderful history.
“I would like to thank the NZ Opera School for its continued excellence and contribution to our school, and the city of Whanganui as the school enters its 30th year.”
Brown believes the schools have a synergy - an unshakeable foundation to provide excellence.
“Students can achieve great things when we set high expectations for them - this is what both schools do. We provide the opportunity and the ability to understand who we are, what we stand for, the ability to reach beneath the surface to see, feel and hear the world differently, to embrace diversity and with our mottos of minimum fuss and maximum work, we move forward with conviction and courage; we do not take a footstep back.”
As headmaster, he often spoke of comfort zones to Collegiate students.
“Excellence occurs outside this comfort; there is nowhere worth going that can get you there with a shortcut. A message [which] I am sure is delivered to the students of the Opera School.
“It is the synergy between Whanganui Collegiate School and NZ Opera School students and staff, where we build on aspirations rather than insecurities, we strive for excellence. Thirty years or 170 years, what we know matters – who we are matters more. The alumni of both schools go on to be of positive and profound influence.
“May this 30th year bring new happiness, new goals, new achievements and new inspirations. Wishing a year loaded with happiness, success and prosperity for you all.”
A final word from Donald: “Here were are again Whanganui. How blessed we are.”