New Zealand singers living in the United Kingdom haven't been able to sing professionally since March; to fill the awful void they've got together to mount a one-off concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
Organiser baritone Julien Van Mellaerts says Whānau: Voices of Aotearoa, far from home was an incredibly emotional experience as the 20 Kiwi singers performed a selection of songs from Aotearoa and the Pacific.
- The concert will be broadcast on RNZ Concert this Monday 23 November at 1pm.
It’s an understatement to say that Covid-19 has hit the performing arts hard. The thought of abandoning hard won careers has crossed the minds of many. The loss of public performances has not only affected artist’s income, but also their identity.
The UK is home to a surprising number of hugely talented New Zealand opera singers, some of whom are training at prestigious music schools while others are busy building their international careers.
They’re a special bunch. Finding themselves far away from the support and comfort of home, they’ve taken the initiative to support one another while also continuing to create.
On Monday 23 November at 1pm RNZ Concert is proud to share this unique fundraising concert featuring many of our talented performers. Whānau: Voices of Aotearoa, far from home features songs from Aotearoa and the Pacific sung by more than 20 Kiwi singers including Phillip Rhodes, Madeleine Pierard, Filipe Manu, Isabella Moore, Benson Wilson and Julien Van Mellaerts.
Julien is one of the event organisers. He admits that what started as a simple idea to get together and perform some arias easily ballooned into a huge concert.
“We quickly decided that we wanted to do something unique and special to us, and that was how we chose New Zealand music and music from the Pacific - to give us a sense of whānau, to give us a sense of home and to help with our homesickness.”
The concert was recorded just hours before London went into a new month-long lock-down. Julien says that being around that number of Kiwis was “incredibly emotional” - especially making music as a group.
“…The power of singing New Zealand tunes like Pokarekare Ana and Hine e Hine together was insane and just really special.”
Julien has found the transition to performing to an online audience hard, having spent years training to perform to a live audience.
“Music is there to be communicated to people and shared between people, so the idea of doing it to a camera is very foreign.”
Despite the absence of an audience, the performers were able to get the live performance vibe by singing for each other.
The Royal Albert Hall generously gave them free reign of the Elgar Room for a day. They also enjoyed a moment in the Royal Albert Hall itself where they recorded the Maori hymn Ka Waiata. For some of the singers this was their first experience singing on that iconic stage.
New Zealand pianist Bradley Wood accompanies many of the songs on Elton John’s famous red piano, donated after one of his world tours. And there’s a “spine-tingling” pōwhiri from Ngāti Rānana London Māori Club who were also excited to be performing again.
2020 was set to be one of Julien Van Mellaerts’s most artistically and financially rewarding years. But when the baritone contracted Covid-19 in March his voice dropped about two octaves. The exhaustion was “awful” and he has spent months rebuilding his health, his singing voice and his career again.
A few weeks ago, Julien needed to take a Covid test for a contract in Portugal and was shocked to receive a positive result. He immediately went into self-isolation, but sadly lost the contract in Portugal.
He's learnt to take this year one day at a time and is dealing with the ongoing work cancellations in his stride. The Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation have generously come to the financial aid of a number of struggling singers and Julien has been grateful for their assistance to help make ends meet.
Organising and performing in Whānau: Voices of Aotearoa, far from home has also lifted his spirits and created a new community of supportive New Zealanders.
“There were 23 of us altogether, singing, chatting, hanging out, all masked and socially distanced of course. It was so special, and to hear all these people – there’s some stunning talent here and all these songs from home and all the individual songs that people chose, it was really touching.”
The initiative has received a lot of support, especially from the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation, which immediately came forward to underwrite the entire event.
“I don’t think we can grasp just how much this means to us at the moment and just how difficult life is here - that to have this amount of support both financially and emotionally has made a world of difference to every single one of these singers. We feel valued again. We feel encouraged and believed in and supported."
"We trained our whole lives to get to this stage and it's really knocked us – not only our confidence, but our mental health as well as our financial health of course. And to know that we are valued again and supported has changed all of us.”
Whānau: Voices of Aotearoa, Far from Home will be broadcast at 1pm on Monday 23 November and repeated on Sunday 29 November at 6pm on RNZ Concert.
While the performance is free for all to enjoy, people can choose to contribute directly to the performers through their website whanaulondonvoices.com.