27 Feb 2024

Aivale Cole: back with the old gang

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 27 February 2024
Aivale Cole

Photo: Aivale Cole

It's called The O.Gs, and Wellington-born soprano Aivale Cole has a starring role in it.

The show is a celebration of the first wave of Pasifika singers to establish themselves in world of opera.

Joining the Samoan-Niuean singer is Tongan tenor Ben Makisi, Samoan bass-baritone Eddie Muliaumaseali'i, Māori soprano Deborah Wai Kapohe, and the Kingdom of Tonga's first international mezzo-soprano, Lotte Latukefu.

The brainchild of Siliga Sani Muliaumaseali'i (a regular voice on RNZ Concert and also performing in the show), The O.Gs is one of the acts in this year's Auckland Festival.

But just what do the letters O and G stand for?

Speaking to RNZ Concert host Bryan Crump, Cole says "Original Gangstas" is one interpretation, although the show's programme notes also suggest "Opera Giants" and even "Oceanic Gafa" – Gafa meaning genealogy in Samoan.

Whatever interpretation, The O.Gs is more than a gathering of great Pasifika voices. The show is also a celebration of the adventuring spirit of the descendants of some of the world's greatest navigators, and the scene of their latest triumph: opera stages in Aotearoa and beyond.

Cole's own story typifies that.

After winning the 2009 Lexus Song Quest, she moved to London to establish herself as a singer in Europe.

Did she miss home? How did she handle those dismal London winter days?

She handles them fine.

"The sun's shining inside all year 'round in my heart," she says, then bursts into laughter.

"I know it's corny, but it's true!"

"I'm very much a relational person, I love catching up with people, whether it's dark, or whether it's light."

As well as being a homecoming of sorts for Wellington-born Cole, The O.Gs is also part of her return to full-time singing after taking a break to raise a family.

Not that she stopped singing around the home. She kept up regular practice, and continued to fulfil regular singing engagements, such as singing the Samoan national anthem at the Rugby League Cup final in the UK in 2022.

Sadly, one of the earliest Pasifika opera pioneers, the bass-baritone and 1987 Mobil Song Quest winner Iosefa Inari (1954-2000) can't be part of The O.Gs, but his legacy lives on through the annual music award in his name Creative New Zealand gives to promising Pasifika musicians every year.

"He was an amazing encouraging person," says Cole, "who actually took us young ones, teens, he would hear about us and then he would mentor us."

Cole also acknowledges the role played by the great Māori singers who established themselves in London ahead of her: Inia Te Wiata, and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

"They did pave the way for Pacific Island singers. They inspired us."

The Māori contribution in the Pasifika singing story is recognised  in The O.Gs by the presence of Deborah Wai Kapohe.

Given Pasifika singers are doing the world of opera such a favour at the moment, Crump wants to know if Cole thinks it's time Pasifika music itself was in the limelight, that Pasifika were singing their own songs.

Cole agrees, and cites Helen Tupai's Signature Choir as a wonderful example. She's also taken part in a workshop for a new Samoan opera by Poulima Salima while she's been back in Aotearoa.

"But it is also wonderful we can sing their (opera) stuff, too."

Book yourself a seat in Shed 10 on Auckland's Queens Wharf on 24 March, and you'll get a taste of Pasifika and Māori singers bringing you both.