When the Covid-19 epidemic closed the London theatres, opera singing couple Benson Wilson, baritone, and soprano Isabella Moore, felt there was no point in staying on and returned to New Zealand to stay with Wilson’s family in Havelock North.
Their prolonged visit resulted in the Winter Waiata concert last week at Toitoi Hawke’s Bay Arts & Events Centre.
Feeling a strongly-felt absence of music-making, the internationally-trained singers collaborated with Glen Pickering and the team at Toitoi to produce the concert, performing some of their favourite songs and operatic arias. Singing from Bizet, Ravel, Schubert, Gershwin and Liszt, they were sensitively accompanied by their long time friend, piano accompanist Catherine Norton. Norton, who has also performed in the United Kingdom and Europe and is a multi-award-winning opera-singer accompanist.
As their voices soared through the beautifully restored opera house, we were reminded that this is what it was designed for. By world standards it’s a small one, but it is perfect and it’s ours, and we felt the significance of the moment as we shared it with our locally-grown, world-class talent.
Moore and Wilson had spent a decade in the United Kingdom, developing their classical repertoire at the English National Opera and Glyndebourne on Tour and studying singing in Italy, the United States and Wales. The interruption of lockdown in London has impacted on Benson’s final year at the National Opera Studio and Isabella’s training with world-renowned tenor Dennis O’Neill.
Joining them in their first solo onstage performances were six students of the Project Prima Volta (PPV) – Vili Moore, Miharu Nagata, Julia Spurgeon, Armya Hapuku, Shazia Hapuku Te Nahu and June Sheardown. Overcoming their stage fright these 15-16 year olds sang beautifully and with confidence in an event that will become a very special moment in their lives.
Katherine Winitana, our compère for the evening surprised and delighted us late in the concert when she and Benson sang ‘Bess, you is my woman now’ from Porgy and Bess. Winitana has an amazing soprano voice. She is a graduate of PPV and now mentors the young singers, having gone on to win a scholarship to complete her music degree at Massey University, where she continues to study for her Honours in Classical Performance.
Isabella Moore and Benson Wilson are New Zealand-born Samoan who first met at age 15 as choristers in the New Zealand Secondary Schools Choir. They were introduced to classical music through choral singing and their singing careers have many parallels.
Benson was introduced to the choir by Havelock North High School music teacher Elizabeth Curtis, whom he describes as being “incredibly kind and patient with this boy who had no interest or knowledge of classical music and [who] made it fun for me,” and Susan Melville, the choir director who taught him music literacy and discipline.
It was as a junior chorister in 2007 that he first sang with the choir at the reopening of the then newly-refurbished Opera House/Toitoi. Benson, then 14 and his family moved to the Samoan Congregational Church in Havelock North where his father was the Pastor, while Isabella grew up in West Auckland.
While Wilson returns to London on the 24th August to begin rehearsals for a new production of ‘La Boheme’, Moore is staying on in New Zealand to finish some photographic modelling assignments before joining him later in the year.