Touted as a boot camp for young aspiring Kiwi opera singers, the 27th New Zealand Opera School starts on Monday, January 4 at Whanganui Collegiate School.
But the 2021 school will be different.
Instead of vocal tutors arriving from Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, this year the tutors are all New Zealanders.
Covid-19 has meant this school is strictly Kiwi, writes Lin Ferguson.
It's that time of great music and performance again for Whanganui.
A time where the glory of freshly minted young classical voices will be singing at the New Zealand Opera School on campus at Whanganui Collegiate School and at public events in the city.
This 27th year of the world acclaimed school starts officially on January 4 with students, tutors and accompanists arriving a day earlier to settle in and discuss what the next two weeks will entail.
Often described as an opera boot camp, the school runs a daily programme through to January 19 which involves students being up early for an hour's physical workout quickly followed by breakfast and a day of intense vocal coaching through until 5.30pm.
As one of Australia's lauded and best-known international opera conductors, Brian Castles-Onion said working as a vocal coach was a bit like 'being a psychologist'.
"A lot of time is spent chatting, listening to the singer often vent their anger at whatever is going wrong in their life and enduring the depressions when the voice is not responding as desired," Castles-Onion said.
"Since the voice is the mirror to the soul, the singer has to feel secure with the coach because every aspect of his or her personality is on display in its rawest form."
School chairman and founder Donald Trott said together with fine tutors, the backbone of the school also depended on an excellent administration team to ensure the wheels ran smoothly and the school was successful.
However, this year for the first time the school will be unique with a full contingent of New Zealand tutors.
Earlier this year Covid-19 severed any possibility of bringing in overseas tutors as was standard practice.
Renowned names like Cesar Ulloa from San Francisco, Della Jones from London and Dennis O'Neill from Wales are all grounded in their home countries.
Even though Trott was told that maybe it was best if the 27th school was cancelled, the team decided it was out of the question and set to work planning an all New Zealand school.
"The school absolutely had to go ahead," Trott said.
And despite initial difficulties in deciding who the tutors could be, the all New Zealand vocal faculty "literally fell into place".
The five Kiwi vocal tutors are world acclaimed Wagnerian tenor Simon O'Neill, tenor Pene Pati, touted as a young Pavarotti, his wife international lyric soprano Amina Edris - all three are alumni of the opera school - along with the inimitable and loved mentor of young singers, superb soprano Dame Malvina Major and leading Australian soprano Emma Pearson who has lived in New Zealand for the past 10 years.
Simon O' Neill insists he is still a small-town Kiwi boy from Ashburton who remembers turning up to the first opera school in 1994 in an old Ford Escort keen to get on with music, school life and especially meeting girls.
But his first lesson with Madame Virginia Zeani from the United States, a dramatic soprano regarded one of the greats of the 20th century, fell well short.
Madame Zeani told O' Neill, then a baritone, to return the next day as a tenor.
"Go away and learn the tenor roles," she told him.
Fraught with anxiety, he worked through the night learning a complete set of music as a tenor.
Today his stellar career as a tenor has taken Simon to most of the major world opera houses.
This month he was to have been in Berlin with the Berlin State Opera which of course now like the rest of Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States is battling Covid-19 and all bets are off for performers.
Pene Pati arrived home to New Zealand and isolation from Berlin at the end of November.
His starring role with the Berlin State Opera was cut short on the eve of opening night.
He admitted that mentally it was difficult to deal with and knew that his best option was to return home and do the two weeks isolation.
Even though he still performs on occasions with trio Sole3Mio, the wildly popular trio with his brother Amitai and cousin Moses McKay, his operatic career takes precedence, he said.
His wife, the sultry and beautiful Amina, had also returned home after her contract with the Paris Opera was also cut short in 2020.
In 2021 she and Pene will return to Europe they hope; Amina to France and the Paris Opera where she will not only be singing with the illustrious company, she will be singing the leads in operas Carmen, Il Trovatore, La Traviata and La Boheme.
The company will be touring throughout France through most of 2021.
Former Australian soprano Emma Pearson said she is thrilled to be teaching at the school which has always been acclaimed and revered among the New Zealand music community.
In October she sang in New Zealand Opera's production in Auckland of Handel's Semele then the Bach B Minor Mass with the Orpheus Choir in Wellington.
And with the much-loved Dame Malvina Major at the helm of this line-up of exceptional tutors this, the opera school's first full Kiwi contingent will be utterly unique.
As always the vital role of the opera school is the financial supporters without whom the school would cease to function and would mean dashing the hopes of young aspiring opera singers hoping to make it overseas for specialised tuition and onto the world's opera stages.
When the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation pulled its funding in 2017 it sparked concerns about the school's future.
But Trott allayed those fears, working tirelessly and securing new financial backing from the Freemasons Foundation.
"And fortunately with the Freemasons Foundation funding we go from strength to strength."
His right-hand man, school director Jonathon Alver, said earlier the school was now stronger than ever with the number of talented young opera singers coming out of New Zealand over the past seven years leaving other countries behind.
"The number of classical singers has certainly doubled.''
Principal sponsors of the school include the Deane Charitable Trust, Dame Jenny Gibbs and the Sir William and Lois Manchester Trust.
This 27th New Zealand Opera School again ensures an occasion to make Whanganui people very proud, Trott said.
"And we are very blessed with the unstinting support we have every year from the people of Whanganui. We could never do it without them."
New Zealand Opera School public events:
• Wednesday, January 6 at 2pm, an afternoon tea recital at Heritage House in St Hill St.
• Sunday, January 10 at 11.30am, In Praise of Music at the Collegiate Chapel.
• Monday, January 11, a public masterclass with Dame Malvina Major in the Prince Edward Auditorium at Collegiate School.
• Wednesday, January 13 at 7pm, Dining with Opera at three venues; The Red Lion, The Rutland and Lucky Bar.
• Friday, January 15 at 2pm, Talk about Opera at the Prince Edward Auditorium.
• Saturday, January 16 at 7.30pm, Great Opera Moments at the Royal Whanganui Opera House.