News and events

An interview with a Kiwi icon

New Zealand Opera recently interviewed Dame Malvina for its eNOTES newsletter, to mark the Dame Malvina Major Foundation’s 25th anniversary.

This year, the Dame Malvina Major Foundation celebrates its 25th anniversary.  Through programmes like the New Zealand Opera Dame Malvina Major Foundation Emerging and Young Artists, it has supported some of this country’s brightest talent.  Here we talk to Dame Malvina about a landmark year for the Foundation and her extraordinary operatic career.

The Dame Malvina Major Foundation celebrates its 25th anniversary this year; how are you planning to mark this special occasion?

We have a few things in mind, including plans for a fundraising event to kick off the next 25 years. More than anything, achieving this milestone is a chance to reflect on all that we’ve achieved, the successes of the young artists we’ve supported, and plan for the future – with the help of our many supporters and friends.

What for you has been its single biggest achievement?

The highlight for me is the concert we held at Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre for our 21st birthday. It was a celebration of the success of the Foundation’s past and present and brought together on stage the likes of Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Darren Pene Pati, Kristin Darragh, Phillip Rhodes, Aivale Cole, Carleen Ebbs, Bianca Andrew, Andrew Grenon and Kieran Rayner.

The Magic Flute includes a number of current and former New Zealand Opera/DMMF Young and Emerging Artists; aside from performance opportunities such as these, what do these schemes offer the recipients?

The New Zealand Opera Emerging Artist and Young Artist programmes offer the students the opportunity to act and gain experience on stage that they may otherwise not be able to get and to work alongside professionals. It is developing into a programme whereby our singers return from overseas to be a Young Artist and the Emerging Artists, not yet overseas, get the opportunity to participate in smaller operas, like Brass Poppies – a New Zealand Opera co-production about soldiers going away to war and the girls they left behind. Such performances are invaluable to our young people.

What are the challenges (and opportunities!) young opera performers face today that they didn’t when you were starting out?

Young artists get lots of opportunities to study abroad but the possibility of being able to stay in a foreign country to continue performing is getting harder and harder. To be eligible for a visa, a young person has to be invited and contracted. They have to be above average to get a contract and there are many vying for the same job. It is a very tough world and an aspiring artist would be wise to have a back-up degree in something else, like law or accounting, or medicine.

Last year you announced your retirement from opera singing; do you miss it?

I retired from big concert and opera performances. I still sing; I sing with my students and I still perform for Ryman Health Care Village openings and DMMF showcases. The difference is that I get to choose what I feel I can and can’t do without pressure to perform at all.

What was your favourite operatic role and why?

I have had several favourite roles. Early in my career I loved Mimi as I felt the character was very like myself; I also liked Margarita in Faust for the same reason.  Later, Lucia di Lammermoor became my favourite role.

Lucia was a real person, a young girl under pressure from her brother to marry to save the family fortune. Every time I did the role it was a challenge. Each director asked me to perform the character of Lucia in several different ways; a challenge I really loved. Then of course there is the music, absolutely marvelous music which I loved!  I also loved the role of Tosca; alongside Madama Butterfly, this is Puccini at his best.

Looking back over your remarkable career, what have been some of the highlights?

I feel very privileged to have been lucky enough to have had a varied career which not only allowed me to sing opera in many famous opera houses around the world, but also to sing in places like the Pyramids, outback Australia under very special circumstances, Zion Canyon and with the Morman Tabernacle Choir, many times in Salt Lake City. I have sung for royalty in England, Belgium and Japan and made many recordings, singing with many wonderful orchestras.  And of course, during my career I was able to have my three children. But I guess the real highlight was singing at Covent Garden in 1990 at a special gala concert. I sang the wonderful aria from the first act of Lucia di Lammermoor in the presence of Princess Anne.

To have been good enough to become an opera singer has been indeed a great pleasure; to know that your music can reach so many people, make them well, and to bring them hope and pleasure.


"How on earth did I end up here?"


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