18 Jan 2019

Opera on the river: Whanganui school celebrates 25 years

1:43 pm on 18 January 2019

Stars of New Zealand opera gathered by the water to celebrate Whanganui Opera School's 25th anniversary last night.

Paddle steamer 'Waimarie' hosted New Zealand opera stars by Whanganui river.

Paddle steamer 'Waimarie' hosted New Zealand opera stars by Whanganui river. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Acclaimed Ashburton-born tenor Simon O'Neill joined Sol3 Mio and Kristin Darragh among others aboard the paddle steamer Waimarie, which was converted into floating stage for the occasion.

O'Neill, who has studied and performed in New York and London, was in the school's first intake and credited the school with taking his singing to the next level.

"When I came here to the opera school I met two women who took me to America, one being Virginia Zeani but more importantly Frances Wilson who took me to New York.

"I studied with Luciano Pavarotti and Marilyn Horne and all these very famous people in the opera world and that might never have happened if I hadn't come to Whanganui."

Renowned tenor Simon O'Neill boards the Waimarie.

Renowned tenor Simon O'Neill boards the Waimarie. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Established in 1994, Whanganui Opera School aims to help New Zealand singing talent reach the professional standards necessary to enter overseas conservatories.

It has 20 former students doing just that, and many graduates have had professional careers.

O'Neill had meant to be performing in Berlin, but called in sick.

Instead he was looking forward to the performance of Sol3mio - Pene and Amitai Pati, and Moses Mackay - who are also alumni of the school.

Sol3Mio sing at the school's 25th anniversary celebration.

Sol3Mio sing at the school's 25th anniversary celebration. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

"Those guys, I'm so proud of them. Overseas we all sing in America and they are making their way in legitimate opera careers as well as in their side success with Sol3mio of course.

"Then we've got several other alumni of the school performing tonight. I might even get up and sing a song myself, I think."

Opera school director Jonathan Alver still could not get over the school's success.

"Donald Trott started this school in 1994 thinking we needed to find a way of giving a chance for young people in New Zealand to experience what it is like if they could get overseas to proper conservatories.

Whanganui Opera School Director Jonathan Alver

School director Jonathan Alver. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

"Here we are, 25 years, still doing it and as we speak there are 21 New Zealand alumni from the school in conservatories around the world."

Last night's production, Opera and Aroha on the River, also featured several performances from the Pūtiki Wharenui kapa haka group.

Mr Alver said the school and marae had become closely entwined.

"They have brought to us a spirit of this place, the spirit of the river, and made us feel that we are embedded into this society as well and we just wanted to embrace that.

"And also I think it is really important that people understand that te reo Māori is a wonderful language to sing in.

"We are not only singing waiata ... we are singing operatic arias and duets in te reo Māori because the vowel sounds are so beautiful and perfect for opera in the same way Italian is."

Putiki Wharanui kapa haka group arrived on waka for the celebration.

Pūtiki Wharanui kapa haka group arrived on waka for the celebration. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Pūtiki Wharanui kaumātua Ned Kapa said the long relationship between marae and opera school showed the growing connection between the community and tangata whenua.

"I think it shows that the relationship Whanganui Māori we are having with the community is getting bigger and stronger, and celebrations like this don't come very often."

Mingling amongst the sold-out crowd, school's founder Donald Trott was chuffed with all it had achieved.

"I'm so thrilled to see so many wonderful people here and they're all having a wonderful evening.

"Could you think of a better evening than this or a better location than the Whanganui River?

"Shortly there'll be the Song to the Moon and the moon is up there - what could be better?"

While the Song to the Moon was certainly a highlight, the crowd favourite was a Sol3mio bracket featuring10 Guitars initially in Spanish.

For the purists, a first-ever performance of Nessun Dorma sung by New Zealand's own three tenors: Simon O'Neill with Pene and Amitai Pati.

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