How many people do you know who are born with a gift?
I’m not talking about someone who can hit a baseball (random ability deemed valuable by some cosmic oddity) or eat 17 hotdogs in a minute. I’m referring to something so brilliant … so startling … so … so … so otherworldly that you just watch or listen or observe and think, “Wow. I am witnessing something very special, and the best thing I can do right now is shut my mouth and appreciate it.”
In the 25 previous Quaz installments, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some extremely talented, lovely, fascinating individuals. But here, with today’s Quaz, I honestly consider myself to be in the presence of, well, vocal greatness.
For those of you who don’t follow opera (and, to be up front, though I love the music, my knowledge is limited), Marie Te Hapuku is a star. Her voice is angelic. Beyond angelic. To listen to her sing is absolute bliss, and her spot among the luminaries at the Metropilitan Opera speaks for itself. She joined the Met in 2010 as an immediate cover for Lina in Verdi’s Stiffelo, one of myriad roles she has played throughout a fantastic career.
I actually first came into contact with Marie several years ago, when I wrote a piece for, I believe, Newsday about opera mothers. In other words, this Quaz is a testament to staying to touch with people.
Anyhow, here Marie talks about the life of an opera singer, the extent of her famous heritage, as well as the music she loves and why cutting off two of Shania Twain’s toes while visiting Indianapolis doesn’t sound half bad. You can visit Marie here, follow her Tweets here and become a Facebook fan here. Oh, and her YouTube channel is here. Trust me, it’s amazing.
It’s my absolute honor to welcome to the Quaz the greatest singer I know, Marie Te Hapuku …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Marie, I’m gonna go untraditional and throw you an odd one. So I love opera. Love it. I’m no expert, but the richness of voices, the theatrical drama, the music. I can sit and listen all day and be very happy. That said, several years ago opera sort of confused me. Specifically, I’m talking about the late, great Luciano Pavarotti performing with the Spice Girls and Bryan Adams and the like. I mean, I get it—let’s expose others to opera. But to have one of the brilliant vocalists of all time standing alongside Posh Spice … well, it just seemed wrong. Your take?
MARIE TE HAPUKU: Great observation, Jeff! But that’s showbiz, right? I think that was less about exposing people to opera, and more about those performers getting to sing with Pavarotti (and not the reverse). Sort of like Peter Brady with Joe Namath [JEFF’S NOTE: It was actually Bobby—but big points for effort]. Who hasn’t dreamed of such? Opera is very exciting to sing! Those pop artists had the money and means to make it happen for themselves. Here’s a confession for you: when I saw Michael Bolton singing opera on YouTube, it made my heart melt. Less because of his voice, and more because of his courage to sing something he LOVED and had always longed to do! Cynics be damned—I love people with heart. Even more, I love when musicians branch out into different genres and express themselves beyond their normal comfort levels. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the business.
J.P.: OK, this is gonna sound so dumb and basic, Marie. But I’m guessing most of my readers aren’t opera buffs. Can you explain the joy of opera? I mean, what is it about opera that does it for you? And when novices are sitting there, listening and experiencing for the first time, what should they be paying attention to? What’s the best way to maximize their experience?
M.T.H.: As a singer, I can tell you that the joy of opera is the result of singing with your entire body. Because opera is sung without microphones, it is a very physical, athletic, and sensual process: repetitive deep breathing, the contraction and relaxation of muscles, intense mental focus, and an exchange of energy with your audience. Add to that mix the vibrations of live instruments, the luscious harmonies of music, the intrigue of human relationships found in every opera plot, a fabulous frock to wear—and you have something that is downright addictive. The best advice that I can offer the novice is to FIND OUT WHAT THE OPERA IS ABOUT BEFORE YOU GO! And then, go to a live performance. I don’t have to tell you how much more exciting a game is LIVE, compared to watching it on your tv, right? I’m sure the day the Bad Guys won was much more earth-shattering in the stadium, than over the air. The same is for any performing art. See it live, so that you can experience the energy of the artists, and feel the squillo of their voices resonating in your ears.
J.P.: You joined the Metropolitan Opera artist roster last year as a cover for Lina in Verdi’s “Stiffelio.” I have no idea what that means, but it sounds hella good. I’ve interviewed a fair number of Broadway stars, and they all rave about the New York experience; about how it’s “just different” than playing, oh, Toledo or Miami or even Tokyo or London. Is it the same being at the Met? And, if so (or if not), can you explain why …
M.T.H.: After being hired on the spot for that Met job, I would have to compare it to being in the bullpen at Yankee Stadium versus pitching at Toledo’s Fifth Third Field for the Mud Hens. It felt a bit like being called out of the minors to warm up with Mariano Rivera. The synergy of NYC and the tradition of the Met is second to none. Being a part of it was an experience I will not soon forget, and I look forward to many more opportunities in the future.
J.P.: You’re a native New Zealander, born in Gisborne. I’m fascinated by your rise. Like, literally, how did you find opera? When did you know this was your calling—if, indeed, you consider it such? When was your first performance? And what do you recall of it?
M.T.H.: Jeff, I can honestly say that opera found me. I know that must sound so pretentious and cliche, but it is completely true. My parents brought me to the US when I was a child. Growing up, I studied piano and sang in school choirs, but my exposure to opera performance was limited to Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd singing “Kill da wabbit”. When it came time for college, I applied for a vocal scholarship, on a whim. To my great surprise, I was awarded a scholarship, and had my first voice lessons. I was hugely encouraged by my voice teacher to pursue what he felt was a true gift, but I wasn’t convinced that singing opera was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That all changed a few months later, when I saw my first opera: a student production of Puccini’s “La boheme”. I was so profoundly moved by the music and the entire experience, that it became clear to me that singing was my calling in life. Absolutely. I changed my major and pursued my goals, graduating with a degree in Vocal Performance and Pedagogy. Then, rather than continuing my studies through the conventional path of enrollment at a music conservatory, I accepted an invitation into the Utah Opera Young Artist Program. As a result, I made my professional stage debut singing Hansel in “Hansel and Gretel” (I was a mezzo-soprano then), at an age when most singers were still in graduate school. It was very, very exciting for me, because I was aware of how young I was to be stepping into a principal role in a reputable house like that. I immediately followed that experience with San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Opera Program and Western Opera Theater. That served as a launching pad into different opportunities that took me around the world and back again. Throughout my career, I have been extremely blessed by the enormous generosity of master teachers, coaches and conductors, who have freely shared with me their knowledge, techniques, and time. I have always been humbled by this, and feel a responsibility to share the gifts favored to me by my musical mentors. Singing is what I was born to do. When I’m not making music, I am not as happy. Nothing compares to singing the most divinely beautiful music ever composed—and getting paid for it. I know I am very fortunate to be doing something I love, and I never take it for granted.
J.P.: Whenever I read biographies of opera singers, I always think, “Man, what a life.” There’s always “New York this … Rome that … Barcelona this …” Is it true? Is the life all thrills and excitement and euphoria? Or is there lots of grime and hell we don’t know about?
M.T.H.: Oh boy—there is definitely a lot of grime and hell goin’ on. There is a story attributed to a master instrumentalist, of a fan gushing to him, “I would give my life to play like you do”, to which he replied, “I did”. It is no different for an opera singer, except that a singer carries her/his instrument with them at all times. It cannot be put into a case and stored on a shelf; everything—EVERYTHING—affects the voice. The singer’s physical health, vocal health, emotions, state of mind, personal relationships, the weather and levels of humidity, the altitude, food that is eaten (or not), hours of sleep, and of course the singer’s technique—all affect the sound that emanates from two tiny pieces of tissue suspended in the larynx. And please don’t forget the countless hours spent in the practice room, nor the thousands of dollars spent on voice lessons and language coaching. You can be sure that every “overnight sensation” is the product of years of training. It’s no accident that for every Green Room in an opera house, there are several rehearsal halls and dozens of practice rooms in the same building. So yes, while the lifestyle can be very thrilling and exciting and even euphoric at times, it is more often filled with ongoing discipline, uneventful repetition and study, and many lonely hours isolated in a hotel room. For most singers, seeing one’s hard work, preparation and dedication blossom in the immediacy of performance is what makes the process all worthwhile. One tangential thought I feel compelled to share: singing an operatic aria, or a song in a classical style, does not make one an “opera singer”. (I’m referring to certain recent winners in tv-broadcasted talent competitions, overseas and in the US.) A real opera singer actually performs an entire role on an opera stage—not just a one-off aria from Opera’s Greatest Hits. That’s what I call a “slop-ra” singer.
J.P.: According to your website, you’re a direct descendant of paramount Maori chief, Te Hapuku Ngai Te Whatuiapiti. I don’t really have a question—just wanted to see if I could type his name in on one try. But I’ll ask: What’s your tie to Te Hapuku and what does it mean to you to be a relative of a man who, in 1835, signed the Declaration of Independence?
M.T.H.: Well done, ka pai, typing his name all in one go! Te Hapuku is my tipuna, or ancestor, and is my fourth great-grandfather. As you stated, he was the paramount chief of Hawke’s Bay, which covers a large portion of the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand. His was also a signatory of the Treaty of Waitangi—a document that played an enormous role in New Zealand history, in that it enabled the British Crown to claim sovereignty over the island nation. Te Hapuku was a fierce leader in the region, and addressed many challenges and changes during his lifetime. Knowing that I have come from such greatness gives me a sense of unique identity, not only in the opera world, but also in life. We Maori are a very spiritual people, and I often feel the strength of my many tipuna urging me to press forward and to offer my best to everything I do. I am honored to bear my family’s name, and I enjoy fostering an understanding of my heritage with other people.
J.P.: There’s a scene in the film Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts’ character, a hooker with a bad wardrobe, accompanies Richard Gere to an opera. She has never been to one, doesn’t speak the language—hell, she’s just a hooker with good seats. But “Edward” tells her you don’t need to understand the language to feel the passion and heartbreak of the story. I’ll be honest—I rarely understand most of the opera I’m watching. Am I just dumb, or was Richard Gere’s character full of shit?
M.T.H.: Edward was right, in that all the feeling is right there in the music. But being able to understand the words being sung is also integral. Fortunately, there is a common convenience we can enjoy at most opera houses: supertitles. Projected above the stage in English, the audience can read a translation of the Italian/German/Russian/French opera as it is being sung. Of course there are those detractors who insist that such devices are unnecessary as long as the drama is sung with that passion and heartbreak you mentioned. The key to understanding opera is preparation, in the form of reading the story outline in the program notes, or even doing a bit of research online beforehand. YouTube is terrific for this!
J.P.: So the wife and I were watching the VMA’s the other day on MTV, and Justin Bieber was winning one award after another. I have friends who have been in the music biz for years, and they think Bieber symbolizes everything evil about it—some mediocre, flash-in-the-pan pretty boy makes the 14-year-old girls swoon, so he earns millions. You, Marie, have an amazing, amazing, amazing voice; a genuine vocal gift. And yet, were you to walk down the streets of Manhattan with a sign reading MY NAME IS MARIE around your neck, you’d go largely unrecognized (I’m guessing). So do you hate Justin Bieber and pop music? Do you get it? And can opera ever go mainstream?
M.T.H.: I enjoy pop music a lot and my kids can pick out Beyonce as easily as Mozart. It’s interesting that you used Bieber as your example. This year during the Super Bowl (of course I watched!), Bieber was in a Best Buy commercial. The first thing I noticed about the ad wasn’t Bieber, but rather the “background” music (the overture from Rossini’s opera, Il barbieri di Siviglia—The Barber of Seville). What a missed opportunity for Best Buy! The spot could have been named, The BIEBER of Seville!
Opera used to be the mainstream and its like-ability has helped it endure for centuries, which cannot be said for a lot of genres of music. (Can you imagine 1700’s country music?!) Like Lennox Lewis said about himself, opera is also like fine wine and only gets better with age. While it may not make the Top 40 today, it is more well-known than we may realize. Opera is integrated by pop culture, the media, and advertising into our everyday lives. Hum a few bars of the Anvil Chorus from Verdi’s Il trovatore, Toreador’s aria from Bizet’s Carmen [JEFF’S NOTE: An all-time, all-time, all-time favorite], or the ever-recognizable overture from Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell (Lone Ranger theme), and you’ll understand what I mean. It all starts with exposing KIDS to everything that this music offers! As I mentioned earlier, Looney Tunes played a primary role in my exposure to classical music when I was a child, and I have fond memories of the opera-singing orange on Sesame Street. I would love for all kids to have this same easy introduction to opera. As for taking the opera to the masses, the Metropolitan Opera is now broadcasting to a movie theater near you. In HD. With huge, THX-capable speakers that come very close to giving the movie-goer a taste of what it’s like to be in the opera house at a live performance! And every seat is the best seat in the house. It’s all very, very exciting and I strongly urge your readers to check it out.
J.P.: Greatest moment as a singer? Absolute lowest? Greatest moment?
M.T.H.: Every time I debut a new role. Seriously. Lowest moment was when I made a 38-hour journey from Sydney to London to Paris, then straight out of the taxi for an audition. Singing devoid of sleep just doesn’t work. Luckily it happened at the beginning of my career and I learned my lesson.
J.P.: The cliche image of an opera singer always—always—involves weight. Opera singers are presumed to be relatively heavy. Is there genuine truth to this? And, if so, why? Can a heavy person perform better than a stick?
M.T.H.: Do you know how hungry you’d be if you just killed the baritone, watched the tenor get shot, and then threw yourself off of the top of a building!? Two words: stress eating!! All kidding aside, the topic of singers and body-type has been addressed, discussed, and argued passionately for years. Bottom line: opera singing has nothing to do with weight—it is a vocal technique. Yes, some singers are heavy—but so are some accountants, doctors, athletes, hairdressers, and firefighters. Most singers do not look like the cliche. I would venture to say that the people who promote the hackneyed horned-helmet and spear-carrying image have probably not seen an actual opera. One only has to Google “opera singer” to see that the stereotype is perpetuated more by advertisers with caricatures and stock photos, and less by actual opera singers.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MARIE TE HAPUKU:
• You get a call from Eminem—he wants to do an English language rap-opera album with you. Are you in? And, under industry guidelines, are opera performers allowed to sing, “Bitch, where’s my wallet?”: As long as he wears the gown, and I wear the hoodie, I’m in. And yes, opera performers can sing any text, as long as it allows for appropriate vowel modification—“Beeeeee-oooootcht” is perfect!
• Five all-time greatest singers you’ve ever heard?: Maria Callas, Michael Jackson, Margaret Price, Montserrat Caballe, and Luciano Pavarotti. And Joan Sutherland. And Freddie Mercury … (Do I really only get five?)
• The world’s best acoustics are located … : … in the driver’s seat of my car.
• Do you think Deron Williams should sign a long-term deal with the Nets?: I didn’t know Deron Williams was an opera singer …
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details …: No, that only happened after the plane ride when I finally arrived in Paris. See question No. 9, above.
• Can music change the world, or is that just something we tell kids because it sounds nice?: Aristotle said, “Music has a power of forming the character, and should therefore be introduced into the education of the young.” We should keep telling kids that it can change the world, because it does.
• Would you rather spend five years co-starring in The Shania Twain Opera Experience with the Indianapolis Opera Company or cut off two toes of your choice?: Is there really a question here? Of course I would much prefer to cut off two of Shania’s toes.
• How’d you meet your husband? And how’d he/you propose?: I met my husband in college when I was performing in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I was caught off guard by his direct question of, Hi my name’s Travis, what’s yours? He said he was from Wyoming, and was caught off guard when I responded, “Oh! I love Wyoming!” I had only been to Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, so I didn’t know any better—but I think it was that Wyoming charm that convinced me to say yes to his down-on-one-knee marriage proposal, six weeks later.
• Five things you refuse to eat: Crow, humble pie, a foot in my mouth, the egg from off of my face, and lima beans.
• Sidney Crosby, Malik Yoba, Sandy Koufax or Gary Coleman?: Are you asking me who is the shortest? Gary Coleman.