Kapa Haka in rural Gisborne may seem a world away from the opera houses of Europe, but it helped instill a love of music in Claire Egan she carries on stage with her today.
Now living in London, Egan is forging a reputation as a burgeoning star in the opera scene, having performed all over Europe and in Malaysia.
However she says rather than dreaming of the the big stage and bright lights, it was a typically rural New Zealand upbringing in Matawhero that first captured her imagination.
“I’ve grown up with music in the family, but not classical. I grew up in the back-blocks of Gisborne so it was country music, folk music, a lot of Kapa Haka. It was part of growing up, part of our community, and I loved it. There wasn’t a lot else going on in Gisborne, so it was a good start. I think it is a real advantage coming from a community where music is such a strong part of the community. A lot of our legends and songs are part of every young New Zealander’s upbringing. That really helped, even though I wasn’t brought up with classical music, it hasn’t been a disadvantage.”
That background in Kapa Haka has even helped her development, with Maori vowel sounds similar to Italian, one of the languages of opera.
While always having that love of music, she never thought to turn it into a career.
It wasn’t until she left her job as a photographer in Wellington for Sydney that the opportunity presented itself, albeit in a slightly offbeat manner.
Having fallen in love with opera after seeing a performance at the Sydney Opera House, her flatmates nagged her into entering Operatunity Oz, a reality show that took ordinary singers and aimed to turn them into opera stars.
Despite no formal training she made it through to the top 20, and was encouraged to consider studying music.
After gaining a Bachelor of Music from the Victorian College of the Arts, she was invited to the Cardiff International Academy of Voice.
She caught the attention of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who also grew up in Gisborne, and the world famous songstress offered to sponsor her.
Dame Kiri has been a guiding hand ever since.
“She has been really kind to me, she has had me come and stay with her in her country house. She is very much a kiwi mum, a very nice lady. I haven’t had to opportunity to sing with her, but I’ve filled in for her in Italy when she got sick.”
Egan admits Dame Kiwi has also had to whip her into shape etiquette-wise, but has offered a level of advice and friendship she is truly grateful for.
Making it as an opera singer is a tough road, with hundreds of young hopefuls all vying for roles.
There is an apprenticeship of sorts, which includes picking up covering (understudy) roles, which is comparable to sitting on the bench and waiting for Dan Carter to injure himself.
“If the person they’ve hired gets sick I get to go on, I’m second choice I suppose. But it’s a really great way as a young singer of learning your trade, so quite often you have to do a couple of years covering, it’s earning your stripes almost.”
Egan has a covering role at the famous Vienna Festival mid-year, but is currently performing in London with Merry Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Riverside Studios.
She has taken on two leading roles – The Queen of the Night and Pamina – and said it was a lively show to perform in, and watch.
“It’s a really fun show, the director is very clever with words, he is a bit of a wordsmith.
“For people who don’t follow opera, there are tunes they will definitely recognise.”
Like many in London, Egan juggles part-time and casual work with her passion.
She also has to be careful with how she treats her body, with companies expecting fit and healthy performers up to the rigours of the stage.
“I try not to be too precious, but I have to be careful. I go out for a beer, not big nights out on the can, and try and keep warm. The face of opera is changing, we have to compete with musical theatre. No one wants to see the fat lady sing anymore, they actually want to see people who can move on stage.”
It is a small price to pay, however, to achieve her goals, which include singing at two of the biggest venues in London.
“I want to sing at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and the English National Opera, they are my two big ones. In the next five years I’d also like to sing at some of the bigger festivals.”
Find out more about Claire Egan at www.claireegan.com. She is also available for corporate events and entertaining.