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Experiencing opera where opera began

Patricia Hurley’s Italian for NZ Opera Singers Masterclasses 2018
From left tenor Harry Grigg, mezzo soprano Elisabeth Harris, soprano Joanna Foote and baritone Ben Reason

A dream to immerse young New Zealand singers in the land of opera’s birth has today become a reality for more than 60 up-and-coming Kiwi artists.

Patricia Hurley’s Italian for NZ Opera Singers Masterclasses has seen the likes of Anna Leese, Bianca Andrew, Moses Mackay, Oliver Sewell, Polly Ott and Marlena Devoe, benefit from daily Italian language lessons, vocal tuition and performance opportunities as they soak up la bella vita.

Patricia Hurley says the seed was first planted when, as manager of the opera company in Wellington during the 1990s, she realised that while 80% of the operas performed were from the Italian repertoire and sung in Italian, none of the singers were getting the opportunity to study Italian or do further training in Italy.

“It was just too hard. The Embassy no longer had a cultural attaché, there were no New Zealanders on the ground there to help.”

Patricia says singers need to experience Italy where opera began four hundred years ago.

“It might just mean sitting in a piazza watching Italian behavior and gesticulation, or visiting the homes of Puccini and Verdi for inspiration, or singing a Rossini aria to an Italian audience who laugh in different places from an English speaking audience, having hopefully understood the words!”

The programme has been running out of an 18th century villa in Tuscany for nearly 20 years as part of Patricia’s Opera Tours. Singers receive scholarships funded by generous individual donors and fundraising concerts. Early on, Dame Malvina visited the villa in Tuscany and saw the value of the experience, performing with the singers there and in Rome. Since 2012 the Dame Malvina Major Foundation has been helping fund the scholarships.

Patricia says it is an intense but invaluable week-long programme for the young “artisti”.

“Each morning they receive intensive Italian language classes with our expert teacher from nearby Siena. The daily programme continues with individual tuition with the Maestro working on solos, duets and ensembles from the Italian repertoire preparing for the concerts at the end of the week or future opera roles. There are two or three concerts – one in the villa, then in the nearby town of Montevarchi, in a theatre in Umbria, or sometimes at the New Zealand Embassy in Rome.

“Often there are also visits to the towns, homes and museums of composers like Verdi and Puccini, watching opera performances in major theatres, and visits to historic places and art galleries to broaden the cultural experience.”

Wellington soprano Katherine McIndoe, a former Dame Malvina Major Foundation Emerging Artist with New Zealand Opera, attended the 2016 programme.

“My ultimate impression of the trip was of the extraordinary way in which Italian opera is tied to its country, people, landscape, and culture. I was struck by this when we visited Bevagna, and performed in the beautiful Teatro Francesco Torti. Oliver [Sewell] was onstage singing ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Donzetti’s L’elisir d’amore, and I was standing backstage waiting to go on after him, to sing Adina’s aria from the same opera.

“As I was listening to Ollie singing, I looked out the window onto the cobbled square behind the theatre, where night was falling and people were sitting around talking and eating at tables in the street. I felt that this scene could have been unfolding in exactly the same way in that square when Donizetti was writing the opera, and that this could well be the lovesick Nemorino’s small town.”

Artistic Director Maestro Wyn Davies says the gift that the week affords young singers is the experience of doing Italian things in Italy.

“The music is all in Italian, as are the language lessons. The staff at the villa are Italian and will be speaking Italian, the food and the wine are Italian. I even do my best to do my coaching in Italian.

“And the marvellous thing about the week is that it continues to happen. That is due to Patricia’s persistent enthusiasm and championing of young Kiwi talent, the financial backing of individual well-wishers and of course the indispensable support of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation.”

This year’s scholarship recipients are soprano Joanna Foote, mezzo soprano Elisabeth Harris, tenor Harry Grigg (assistance from Greenlea Foundation Trust) and baritone Ben Reason (assistance from Greenlea Foundation Trust).


This article was originally published in our Summer 2018/19 edition of Rhapsody. Download the pdf.


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