3 May 2024

Tongan tenor Manase Latu on his international opera journey

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 3 May 2024

New Zealand tenor Manase Latu says the success of Samoan-Kiwi trio Sol3 Mio was "a big catalyst" for his own singing aspirations as a teenager.

"I was like 'Wow, these are Poly boys like me that sound so amazing and maybe one day I could be like them. Fast-forward a few years and I have the opportunity to share the stage with [Moses Mackay] and it's quite a surreal feeling."

After training in London and New York, Latu takes his first leading role in New Zealand Opera's latest comedy Le comte Ory

Image of Tongan-New Zealand tenor Manase Latu.

Image of Tongan-New Zealand tenor Manase Latu. Photo: Dario Acosta

Latu was born in New Zealand but spent his early childhood in Tonga surrounded by church music and and traditional Tongan music.

His journey into the "classical realm" came via singing choral music in his South Auckland high school choir.

Latu was a 15-year-old in the school tuck shop line - ordering his "normal go-to" chicken panini - when he was recruited by the choir's conductor. 

"He saw me and said 'Hey, do you sing?' I said 'Yeah, sometimes'. He said 'Come with me' and I went with him and we ended up in a practice room and he made me sing some scales. Then he said 'Right. We have practice on Wednesday night. I'll see you there'. I was dumbfounded. I said 'Okay, I guess I'm in the choir now'.

After being told by his singing teachers that opera could be a "possible career pathway", Latu really started exploring his passion for music at the University of Auckland. Then in 2017, he had the "really priceless experience" of being handpicked to join Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's opera training programme.

"When you think of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, she was the cream of the crop. She was the it girl. She's a legend in the world of opera... I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for the Kiri Foundation."

In 2019, Latu got a "big confidence boost" from winning the Australian Singing Competition then took up a scholarship with London's Royal College of Music.

"It was the first time moving away from home, living by myself for the first time and then on top of that being in a different country and studying what it's like to be a singer.

"There's a lot of challenge that comes with that but I think for me the biggest thing was the mental shift. Opera is still growing here in New Zealand. Here you're kind of like a big fish in a small pond. But as soon as you get over there you're like a little plankton in the ocean type thing. There are so many good singers out there.

"What was important for me was to try and keep my sanity was to just realise that I'm on my own journey and not compare myself to other artists and other students out there who are doing their own thing."

While studying in London, Latu found out he and fellow NZ opera singer Samson Setu had won places at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Development Program in New York for the 2020 to 2022 season.

"Opportunities like that don't come around a lot in your life and in hindsight now I was able to rub shoulders with some of the best in the game, pick their brains, the best conductors, best singers in the world currently. It was just an unbelievable experience, that I'm really grateful and thankful for."

Now, in his first year outside of a development programme, Latu says he's just beginning to "step out into the limelight" professionally.

"I'm putting my feelers out there, doing various auditions, planning to do auditions in Europe and in the UK. America, and just seeing where it takes me."

For now, he's glad to be back "in the land of meat pies" performing as Count Ory in Gioachino Rossini's opera Le comte Ory. 

The NZ Opera production has a "very contemporary and modern take" on the 1812 opera, Latu says.

Already a "ridiculously funny" comedic piece, the New Zealand setting adds another layer of relatability for Kiwi audiences.

"I think this is going to be a hit ... We just started rehearsal on Monday and all of us cast just left with a stitch because we were just laughing the whole time. The atmosphere that's being created during the rehearsal period… the lines between work and having fun just get blurred. It's really funny."

Manase as the Count Ory, for the Le comte Ory tour.

Manase as the Count Ory, for the Le comte Ory tour. Photo: NZ Opera