20 May 2018

Pene Pati and Amina Edris: opera stars living The Elixir of Love

From Sunday Morning, 11:04 am on 20 May 2018

Pene Pati is one third of the smash-hit pop opera family group Sol3 Mio. Pene, his brother Amitai and cousin Moses Mackay have taken a break from Sol3 Mio to further their operatic studies around the world.

Pene is home for a while with his soprano wife Amina Edris, and the two are starring in NZ Opera's production of Donizetti's The Elixir of Love starting 31 May.

Amina Edris and Pene Pati

Amina Edris and Pene Pati Photo: Supplied

The tenor has been smashing it in recent years. Since winning first prize at the Montserrat Caballé International Aria Competition in 2014 he has also had a major debut with the San Francisco Opera in Rigoletto.

Award-winning soprano Amina Edris also performed in that production and has been steadily widening her repertoire, being praised for her "lustrous" tone.

The Egyptian-born, New Zealand-raised singer is widely thought of as one our bright young operatic stars.

Both have won a place on San Francisco Opera's prestigious Adler fellowship and have been based there for the past two years.

Each year three or four singers are selected from 2000 applicants to become Adlers.

Wallace: People don't realise that there are some big singers that are up and coming from around the world now. It's actually quite global now, isn't it?

Amina: Absolutely. Yeah, especially coming from New Zealand. When we're in New Zealand, you know all the singers because you all sort of grow up with each other in the classical music scene. And then you step outside of New Zealand and you're like, "Whoa. What is happening?" So when Pene was in Maryland he called me and said, "Oh my God, there are so many good singers around here. What is happening?" And then I did the program two years later and I felt exactly the same. Show up on the very first day and everybody goes up and sings in the masterclass and I'm just sitting here going, "Oh wow. Do I fit in this group?" It's that kind of high level.

It's an amazing experience.

Wallace: And then you, Pene, got a lead role in the San Francisco Opera 's production of Rigoletto. You said that was a surprise.

Pene: It was, because for one thing, a young artist doesn't get the lead role at all. It just doesn't happen ... So when they said we're gonna give him the opportunity to do the lead, it was a huge head-turner for the rest of the country because they were like, "Wow! Why would they give this opportunity to a young artist?" So that for me, it was nerve-wracking but at the same time, I was looking to prove. I was like, "I've got to do to this. I have to do this."

And of course I was on stage with Amina and my brother and it was kind of a family affair, the three of us on stage. And you know, they ran with that, and rightly so. The marketing ran with that because they were like, "God, we got the whole family up here, it's pretty cool."

Amina: It was pretty special. I initially wasn't supposed to be in the show. I found out very late ... I got an email saying, "We know that you have quite a large workload during the summer season, but would you mind adding this role on?" And I was like, "Are you kidding me? Yes. I've been telling you this the whole time. It's like three lines. I totally can do this."

So we started rehearsals and it was so special to have all three of us. Literally in the staging there is a point where all three of us are on stage in the front, in one line. And I enjoyed that moment every, every show that we did, because it was just a special moment. Who knows when on earth all three of us will ever be in the same opera ever again. It's unheard of in a way.

Quite amazing. Pene, as I understand it, you have Andrea Bocelli to thank for opening your eyes and ears to opera, don't you? Ten years ago you sang in the choir behind him with your brother, and that was the turning point.

Pene: It was. It was 2007 ... They were putting this choir together, and at that time I was an avid choir representative. I was there singing in choral societies everywhere. They said he was coming through, [you should] audition for it, and then when he started singing, I kind of thought, "Whoa, this is crazy!"

The fact that he came with his own orchestra. He had a chorus behind him. There were thousands, he packed the Spark Arena. At that point in time I thought, "This is exactly what I wanna do." And then from there I went and saw the opera La Boheme from Puccini put on in 2008. It was a complete new experience. I knew nothing of opera. I didn't even know it was all sung. I didn't even know it was in Italian. I knew nothing. I was a complete virgin. I was sitting there going, "Oh my God, what is going on?" My sensors just went on overload. Then at the end I was bawling in tears. I was like, "This is what I wanna do. I wanna do this."

And Sol3 Mio, that was born three years later. Hugely successful, and really bridges that gap, doesn't it, between classical and contemporary. That's where you made the space.

Pene: Yeah, because we really wanted to make it accessible. Not that it isn't, but we're trying to make it even more accessible to people who are similar to me, who have thought they would never get into opera. And then suddenly they're sitting there going, "Oh my God, this is something I want to pursue or something I want to listen to." That was the whole point of Sole Mio and I encouraged the other boys to keep doing opera because that's the reason why we started the group.

Have you brought your family into the operatic fold as well?

Pene: Oh yeah, absolutely. It's so funny hearing my uncles and aunties talking about opera. It's just bizarre. They don't know much about it. That's the funny thing. They don't know much, but they sit there like they're experts. But they love it though, they absolutely love it.

Now Amina, you're originally from Egypt but you grew up in New Zealand. Tell us about growing up and how you first got involved with music. Because you're a little less well known by the general public.

Amina: My [immediate] family is not in any way musically inclined, [but] my dad has a brother and sister who are both heavily involved in music. My uncle plays the lute and the guitar and the piano and all sorts of Egyptian percussion instruments, and my auntie plays the violin and the piano, and they sort of taught me. They would teach me songs and teach me how to play the piano from a very very young age.

My dad would just sit there. He has no idea what's going on. It's not his forte. But they were the ones that realized that there was something there and they pushed me towards developing the interest that they saw that I had in music.

When we got to New Zealand [and I was in] high school I started joining the choir and the barbershop quartet. And then the head of music at the time needed some trombone players. Yes, I play the trombone. And I actually wanted to learn the cello, but he looked at me and he goes, "For you to play a string instrument you need to have started much much younger." I was like, "Yes, but you need to give me a chance. I really want to take up cello lessons." And he looks at me, he goes, "Okay, if you can prove to me that you can pick up and learn the trombone very quickly, I'll get you sorted with cello lessons." I played the trombone in the concert band and orchestra and jazz band for five years in high school. Not once did I take a cello lesson. Not once.

I was involved in a lot of musical extracurricular activities throughout high school. When I got to university, my parents were like, "No way, we know that this is a hobby for you, and that's something that you love, but that's not something that you're gonna pursue as a career." And so I actually started doing a bachelor of engineering.

Then halfway through I was like, "This is not for me." This was in the first year, after the first semester, I was like, "This is not me." So I pulled out and I went and auditioned for the school of music behind my parents' back. I got in, and they said, "Okay, great. You'll start the next academic year." So I had a little bit of time to go in between, which gave me enough time to try and convince my parents about what I was about to do next.

I had my uncle Skype them from Egypt. I was like, "Can you try and ease me into this conversation?" So he did. And my mum went nuts and she didn't speak to me for a couple months. My dad didn't have a dramatic reaction to it; he was quite supportive. Ever since then, they're quite proud that I do this. But initially, my mum was like, "What on earth are you doing?"

They wanted the best for you, and it wasn't music.

Amina: No, it was not.

I want to ask you, how did you meet Pene?

Amina: Dame Malvina Major, who was my singing teacher at the time, in Christchurch, along with the Kia Ora Foundation, they put together this program called The Pacific Opera Programme. They brought the two people who were [Pene's and my] bosses in San Francisco actually, Sheri and Mark, who run the Merola Opera programme, they brought them here to New Zealand, and they selected 12 singers from across the country to partake in this programme that was a week to 10 days in Christchurch.

So we all got put in this lodge and we all had to get up, have breakfast in the morning, and then go straight into masterclasses, and then straight into a singing lesson, and then into a coaching. It was just full on for that period of time, for a week or ten days.

I missed the orientation because I was singing the Fauré Requiem the night they did the meet and greet. So I didn't get to meet him that night. The next morning I show up to breakfast [and] there's this big Samoan boy hogging the entire bread station. I fill up my plate, and I look over and I'm like, "Okay, I gotta get some toast."

Pene: I was the last man standing.

Amina: He's just standing there. I don't know how many pieces of toast you had in the toaster oven thingy.

Pene: Hey it's an important job, the bread keeper.

Amina: And I go up there and I'm standing behind him. Then he turns and so I introduce myself. I'm like, "Hello, I'm Amina. I didn't get to meet you last night." And he goes, "Hi Amina. Nice to meet you. Where are you from?" I said, "Oh, I'm Egyptian but I grew up in New Zealand." He goes, "Oh, Egyptian. So do you speak Egyptian?" And I just gave him this death stare. I was like, "It's Arabic."

Pene: And I said, "Do you read those pictures?" So, two wrong questions in quick succession.

But actually straight after that we sat next to each other in the masterclass and it's like we'd known each other for years and years.

They were like, "Who wants to sing first in the masterclass?" And I flung her arm up. So it went up. And they were like, "Amina, you want to sing?" And she was not happy with that.

Annette Campbell-White (r) with San Francisco Opera young singers Amitai and Pene Pati and Amina Edris

Annette Campbell-White (r) with San Francisco Opera young singers Amitai and Pene Pati and Amina Edris Photo: Krsten Locken

Well what a wonderful story. And I suppose, Pene, you've learned something of Egyptian roots, and Amina, you've learned something of Pene's Samoan backgrounds and culture I suppose?

Pene Oh yeah, of course. She's been to Samoa and I went to Egypt.

Is that right?

Pene It was so good in Egypt. Culture shock, but I loved it.

Going back to Egypt, what's it like for you?

Amina: It's different going back home because Cairo changes all the time. I was born in Cairo and I grew up there. Because I go back there after five, six years each time, I don't go back regularly, when we went back, I was like, "Oh my God, so much has changed." I almost didn't know my way around the city as well as I thought that I would.

One of the world's largest cities, isn't it?

Amina:  Yeah. So meanwhile this guy is sitting next to me in the car, in a taxi or my auntie's driving us or something, and every time there's an intersection they do the "beep beep" to warn the car that there's another car coming. And he was just cracking up laughing.

Pene: No, I was gripping the door handles. I've never been in such a situation where there are essentially no rules. Everywhere it was just chaos, but controlled somewhat, and I didn't understand how it was controlled unless you're born there. But everyone's going everywhere and they all manage to get past. It's just insane.

Culture shock on both sides. And you popped the question at Christmas in the Vines concert at Auckland's Villa Maria Estate in 2014. You must have been pretty sure of yourself.

Pene: Well, you know, I'm a confident guy. And I knew for sure it was coming my way. So I had this planned out for quite a long time. I got my brothers and sisters involved. I flew her family up to come to this event. But I wanted to put it on at Christmas in the Vines onstage because I felt like ... because everyone always says, "Why would you do it in front of so many people?" But at the same time, our lives are pretty much, we belong to the stage.

So that's kind of the reason why I did it. If she wasn't a singer then I probably wouldn't have, you know what I mean? Where we both belong [is] the stage and that was our arena, so what better place to pop the question than in the place that we both belong to. It was so romantic. Everyone had glow sticks. Her family gave her roses. I got down on one knee. Wore the wrong pants, I should have worn the stretchier ones.

Amina: Ripped his pants.

Pene: I thought, you know what? I'm gonna stay on my knee the whole night. She said yes. She was unaware of it. She had already gotten out of her gown, so she was in her evening dress playing around and she had no shoes on when I brought her on the stage. She wasn't happy about that. But once everything started, it was great.

I must ask you, what music did you choose for your wedding dance?

Amina: For our wedding dance, we danced to "Fly Me to the Moon."

Pene, you were a former hip hop producer who ended up being persuaded into classical. Now here's a quote I read from you, when you arrived at university: "It wasn't until I got to university and I was the only brown person there and I thought what am I doing here? Everyone knew what they were saying in Italian and knew their pieces and I was like, 'I know Marvin Gaye.'" What was that like?

Pene: I was sitting in class, looking around going, "What am I doing here?" And they said, "Everyone has to sing a piece on their first day." And I went, "Oh man, this is not gonna go right." I sang something that I had quickly learned - a piece called 'Where You Walk'. And there's a repeat in it. And I was singing, singing, singing, and I thought it had finished, so I walked offstage, and the repeat started. I thought, "Oh my God." And the teacher was like, "Pene, if you wanna be the class clown..." And I thought, "No, I'm not trying to be funny, I legit didn't even know there was a repeat."

Everybody was like, "Everyone knows this piece." I was like, "Yeah, but the thing is, I don't know the piece." And I walked off because I thought it was finished. I honestly didn't.

It took a long time to overcome that barrier with the class. I ended up loving the class, of course, but for me I just sat on my own thinking, "How do I do this?" So you either turn your back and say, "Okay, it wasn't for me," or you sit out to try to prove yourself.

Did you have to push through it by yourself? Did you get some counsel, some advice from people?

Pene: I had some advice from a few friends. The next year my brother joined in, [and] Moses joined, so there were more familiar faces that I knew. But there were some good mentors at the time that I had, and some Pacific mentors as well who were like, "Oh, just give it a go. Stick in there. Just figure out one piece at a time. You don't have to know all the operas like everyone else does. Just do what you need to do and keep moving forward. The biggest problem with it is that when people stop and they think they can't do it is when we start to lose everyone." I was like, "Okay, fine." And I just stuck it out and gave it a go.

Fantastic. I love your dad's advice to you, back in the day. I'm quoting him: "Don't go chasing the girls, chase your education first. Once that's sorted the girls will chase you."

Pene: Yes, yes, and he still uses that advice. And that's why Amina chased me.

Amina: He's gonna pay for it later.

Amina Edris

Amina Edris Photo: Supplied

Perseverance is a funny thing, isn't it Amina? I've always wondered that. When you're trying to foot it with the world's best, how far do you push yourself? When do you call it a day? 

I was talking about this with someone yesterday. Out of, I don't know, thousands of people that get out of university with a bachelor of music degree in voice performance or in any type of whatever other instrument, I guess a handful of them actually end up "making it" and sort of surviving in the real world.

And that's the thing. It's just that you finish university, you go into young artist programmes or whatever other training programmes you can get yourself into, and then you go into the real world of freelancing. And then everything is like, "Okay, I just gotta keep pushing, I gotta keep persevering, striving forward," and hopefully, hopefully, the positive thing, hopefully you make it. It's different for everybody. But you just have to see where you want to go and create that path for yourself and just go for it 100%.

That is great advice. Pene, someone compared you to a young Pavarotti. In fact, that was the acclaimed voice tutor, César Ulloa of the San Francisco Opera. What an honour to have that name bestowed upon you.

Pene: It is, and I've gotten it in quite a few reviews now, even in San Francisco, even through Rigoletto. It's a great comparison to make. For me, they always say, "How do you feel?" And I say, "Who else better to be compared to?" It's a beautiful voice, everyone loves that kind of voice. But at the same time you can't help but feel a bit of fear to walk that same level of singing. I always say, and I think everyone else should say, if they've been compared, you always want to make your own stamp in the world. You always want to make your own stamp and sound, and though everyone is giving you the accolade of, "You sound like Pavarotti," it shouldn't mean that I am the next Pavarotti. I should be like, "I am Pene and if I have the sound quality of Pavarotti then I can pave out a good career if I stick to my guns and do what's best."

Now tell us about the season. It's NZ Opera's season of The Elixir of Love in Auckland, Wellington. What drew you both home to this production, back from San Francisco?

Amina: We were talking about this production. It's been two years in the making now and they said, "What do you want to do?" And we said, "Elixir would be great." There's just something about it that's very light-hearted. It's something that everyone can enjoy. It's quite funny as well. When we think of opera, we're always thinking of tragedy, death, intense love, and everything's quite heavy. Which is fine, that is opera really. But there's something about this where we haven't done for fourteen years, 2004 was the last time they did it.

And when you think of an opera that would be perfect to introduce to new audiences, this would be probably one of the first that would pop up into our heads. If someone has never been to the opera before, they know nothing about it, you want to sort of ease them into it by something light-hearted and fun, and there's always something happening on stage.

Well briefly, tell us a little bit about what it's about.

Pene: In a nutshell, I'm Nemorino, I'm the love interest of Adina. So the boy falls in love with the girl. He's madly in love with this girl and she's reading about this book of Tristan and Isolde, and about Isolde having this potion. Of course he becomes ... This elixir of love. But she's reading the book and of course he believes that there actually is an elixir. The whole story is him trying to find this elixir, which then he drinks. Well, that's what you have to come out to find out. He finds this elixir, drinks it, and then he believes, "See, I told you it was true, she's gonna be in love with me."

She's gonna be in love with me.

Details of NZ Opera's The Elixir Of Love here.