The New Zealand Opera School is based in Whanganui. It is a national institution and our town is lucky to have it.
It could be in Auckland or Wellington, but that could kill it, because here it has status and the prestige of being unique, accessible and extremely well patronised by the Whanganui public. Take it to Auckland and it could possibly vanish under the weight of all the other things that gravitate to our largest city by default.
Events and institutions' head offices go to Auckland because of the size of the population, but, they come to Whanganui because of the passion and loyalty of the population.
On Sunday evening, at an event that would be the envy of Europe, a Whanganui crowd packed out the Prince Edward Auditorium at Collegiate School to hear some of the opera world's finest voices in an intimate concert.
We were there, filling every seat, side by side, Covid-free, thrilling to sensational arias and duets. Most arrived early as there was no reserved seating. People parked in the street and walked through the school to the auditorium. With time to kill, many networked, caught up with friends, schmoozed, swapped seats, or just waited in excited anticipation.
This is not a review, but a personal impression of an evening that left most of the audience breathless.
The concert was not part of the original Opera Week programme but was an occasion for some of the Opera School tutors to shine and to show the students how it's done, although Pene Pati, tenor sublime, cautioned them with: "Do as we say, not as we do."
Opera School students lined the side galleries, leaving Whanganui's opera-loving public to fill the tiered auditorium seats. Tickets sold out quickly after the announcement that there would be a concert featuring Pene Pati and his wife, Amina Edris. Hardly surprising.
As it turned out, the concert comprised the advertised duo, as well as Wagnerian heroic tenor Simon O'Neill, flautist Luca Manghi and soprano Emma Pearson, not to mention David Kelly, principal répétiteur for New Zealand Opera.
David was at the piano for the entire performance, playing pieces from a wide variety of operas, showing the skill that makes the répétiteur much more than an accompanist.
His playing was flawless, technically brilliant, with all the shades from glaring white to pitch black, from sombre to light, blancmange to concrete. He knew every piece, every nuance, his eyes flitting from music to singer, and not once making it look difficult. And never did he try to upstage, steal the scene, as he so easily could have.
His movements were understated, his expression relaxed, with a ready smile for the performer when required. Turning the pages for him was Luca Manghi, language tutor for the school and flautist extraordinaire.
Luca was the woodwind amongst the larynxes, and a maestro of the instrument. He played a single piece of some length and considerable difficulty, making it sound like there were two flutes playing. Luca and David have played together before, producing a CD of modern works from Italy and New Zealand.
It was a concert of surprises and singers at their best. Pene Pati led the first half with a difficult German aria — and he nailed it! The strength and versatility of this man's voice, as well as his own personable nature and natural affability, have led to his career soaring … until Covid called a halt.
Now he is here, singing to audiences who have watched him from the start, enjoying his progress and knowing that his status as the "new Pavarotti" is well-founded.
Pene is married to the talented and vivacious Amina Edris, a soprano of Egyptian heritage. What a performer! Her dark eyes and expressive face told the story of each aria, and, like her colleagues, even when the piano was playing solo, she still held the audience's attention with her exquisite stagecraft. And her clear, true voice was in fine form, showing depth and clarity throughout her wide vocal range.
If we thought she was good solo, she and Pene were simply stunning in duet: their love for each other so obvious they had no need to act. Their voices melded perfectly and their use of harmony in some sections took it to another level entirely. Just the way they looked at each other had some patrons dabbing their eyes.
Also on the bill was soprano Emma Pearson, former principal soprano at Hessisches Staatstheater, Wiesbaden, who showed how she and her voice have been able to travel the world's opera stages, performing throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Now she, too, is a tutor at this year's Opera School.
She, like the others, has sung in places most of us could never afford to go, yet, here she was, on stage in Whanganui.
So too was Simon O'Neill, a tenor long admired by Pene Pati. Simon announced that he was there to lighten up the concert — so he would perform an aria from Wagner's Parsifal. The humour was recognised instantly: Wagner was not renowned for his light and fluffy tunes. Simon's career has included singing in operas by other composers, but Wagner is where his heart lies.
After a final duet by Pene and Amina, the concert would have finished but for a loud call for an encore. Then, each singer sang another piece, with the highlight being a duet in which Pene, Amina, Emma and Simon all took part, obviously unrehearsed but with hilarious effect. They were sensational and left us all gasping, wanting more, but knowing we had been listening to and watching the best. What a concert!