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Oliver Sewell wins $50,000 Dame Malvina Major Award

2022 Dame Malvina Major Award recipient Oliver Sewell
Credit Emma Brittenden

Christchurch tenor Oliver Sewell has been awarded the prestigious $50,000 Dame Malvina Major Award, at what he says is a “critical junction” in his singing career.

The singer recently took out first place in the Vincerò Worldwide Opera Competition in Naples, where he competed against more than 30 finalists from five continents in front of an international panel of judges.

“Buoyed by the financial support and the huge vote of confidence, this award is the difference in keeping my dream alive,” says Oliver.

The award funded Oliver’s trip to Italy for the Vincerò competition and will support his return to Europe next year to re-establish himself on the international stage.

“International travel, accommodation, lessons and coachings quickly add up and there is only so much time I can take out from my performing schedule to be available for auditions and competitions overseas. An award like this allows me to take the time off without worrying whether I can afford to keep following this dream.”

Dame Malvina says Oliver’s hard work, diligence, integrity and assistance to younger singers has proved he really understands his voice and craft.

“He has great musicianship and beautiful vocal ease to access the top notes. It is such a pleasure to send him on the next part of his journey knowing he has all the ingredients to become a super opera tenor.”

The Dame Malvina Major Award, established in 2020 and funded by Joan Egan to acknowledge Dame Malvina’s legacy and vision to “share the dream”, supports the career development of talented young opera singers handpicked by the Foundation. Tenor Amitai Pati won the inaugural award, followed by soprano Natasha Te Rupe Wilson in 2021.

“Buoyed by the financial support and the huge vote of confidence, this award is the difference in keeping my dream alive”

Born and raised in Christchurch, Oliver says his journey getting to this point has been incredibly long and varied – from being the lead singer in a band, to a cathedral chorister, to an opera singer.

“I first met Dame Malvina during my final year of high school. I was auditioning to join the Christchurch Cathedral Choir. I was very interested in singing at the time but I was more into indie pop music than classical music! While singing five services a week with the Christchurch Cathedral Choir I was gradually seduced by the beauty and majesty of grand Anglican church music. But my attention was slowly but surely drawn away from church music towards the pathos, sincerity and power of the human voice in opera.”

Oliver in Wellington Opera’s 2022 season of La Traviata, credit Stephen A’Court

Oliver started his vocal studies at the University of Canterbury and the New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī, and was a Dame Malvina Major Foundation Emerging Artist with New Zealand Opera in 2013-14 before moving to New York to complete a Master’s at the Manhattan School of Music. He was a Resident Artist at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia from 2017-2022.

His plans to move to London in June 2020 were disrupted by the pandemic and he has been based in New Zealand for the last two years .

“This period has been a blessing and a curse. I have been able to practice a huge amount and have developed my technique and established myself in the New Zealand music scene with regular work. However, on the flip side my time in New Zealand has left me isolated from the greater opera world and what interest and momentum I had around me two years ago is now gone.”

Oliver says this award couldn’t come at a better time when he truly feels he has something to offer the opera world and needs to get back overseas and reintegrate himself.

“Since the very beginning of my journey, Dame Malvina and the Dame Malvina Major Foundation have always been there to support and help subtly steer me in the right direction. By either gently suggesting that I might have to choose between classical and pop music, to paying for me to fly to Sydney for some voice lessons, funding the Dame Malvina Major Foundation Emerging Artist program at New Zealand Opera, and organising and paying for a language trip to Tuscany.

“Winning this award is an absolute superlative.”


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