11 May 2024

Madison Nonoa: singing her way from the Waikato to European opera houses

From Saturday Morning, 9:30 am on 11 May 2024

New Zealand opera singer Madison Nonoa was blown away to receive the "absolutely life-changing" Dame Malvina Major Award recently.

The Waikato-born soprano will use her $50,000 grant to further develop her professional operatic career in Europe.

Photo: supplied/thinkfolk

Nonoa, who recently graduated from London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, says her dream is to one day perform the role of Susanna in Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House.

As she makes her way, the business of becoming a professional opera singer is "very financially tricky" and becoming trickier with each passing year.

"First of all, it's an incredibly competitive environment, you need to be constantly trying to improve, having coaching, lessons. And these things are investments, they're expensive."

Nonoa is currently based in Lisbon with her Portuguese partner and often travels to auditions in France, Germany and Switzerland, which the grant will help with.

"Now I'm in a position where I'm able to, to really, really invest and to take a lot more opportunities, which is just so exciting."

Nonoa grew up in a music-loving family, joined her school choir at five and also took violin lessons.

"I knew very early on that I was a musician and that's exactly what I had to do. And I was lucky I was in a family that was really supportive."

"It's like I just was meant to do it, I think, but I liked the challenge as well. It always felt like something that was difficult and I wanted to see if I could do it.

"My first musical inspiration probably had to be Freddie Mercury because that was who my dad absolutely loved. I was always taught that Freddie Mercury was the bee's knees and he's very operatic."

Singing onstage is an experience where there's no way to hide from yourself, Nonoa says. 

"Whenever I hear someone sing or I've watched someone sing, I think they reveal a very, very true part of themselves. I reveal very true parts of myself each time I perform. And it's so interesting because it's not something that you see in everyday life but it comes out on stage. I think it's very intimate."

Dame Malvina Major Photo: Margot Boock

Dame Malvina Major says Nonoa is a stand-out soprano for her extraordinary vocal skills but also her tenacity.

"You can't do anything if you haven't got the voice but you've also got to have a certain quality in your personality that allows you to climb these enormous hills and go over the rocky places and be able to sustain that career going forward. It's not an easy life. It's not a glamorous life. The glamour comes later but it's still not glamorous. 

"Madison's personality was absolutely beautiful. She was always a lovely girl to work with. She always performed very well. From orchestras that she'd worked with, we knew that they loved her ... Even though we know the person, we do a little bit of research on how they stand up to the rigours of the life before we award the money."

Rare for a soprano, Nonoa has a special skill with the complex singing style known as Coloratura, Major says.

"Coloratura is the ability of the voice to run fast. It's the ability of the voice to move from note to note very quickly ... How good can the singer be? How well can the singer decorate the piece that he or she is singing? And that means how fast and how well can they sing scales? How accurately can they sing them? Her voice is just perfect for all that."

Opera singers must always make their performance seem effortless, Major says.

"We always liken it to the paddles under a swan or a duck going absolutely flat out and the duck or the swan serenely going along the surface of the water. Nobody is disturbed by what they see on the stage. They hear this gorgeous sound, they see this beautiful person. And they have no idea the amount of work and effort that's going in to actually make it happen."