James Ioelu has sung in opera houses across Europe. He’s won awards for his rich bass-baritone voice. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has personally taken an interest in his career.
He’s also partial to karaoke.
Yes, high brow be damned, there’s nothing like a bit of Frank Sinatra or Michael Buble to end the night, so long as it’s on a stage. No private rooms for him. ‘‘That’s the opera singer in me. I have to sing in front of everyone!’’
Ioelu is a big guy with a giant smile beaming out of a generously bearded face. The timbre of his voice hints at the power in those pipes.
He didn’t grow up exposed to opera. Far from it. He had not heard opera till he was 18, when he was forced into a singing lesson, he says. ‘‘I had been amusician forever, playing the piano, jamming with friends, playing every genre you could think of, but I’d never come across opera. I remember hearing it for the first time, thinking ‘What is this!’ ’’
The first opera he listened to was Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. It’s still his favourite and the role he covetsmost. ‘‘I didn’t know the male voice could sound like that. All the emotion – I thought, this guy’s hurting, but I didn’t know why.’’
That’s because he didn’t understand the language – something hewould address not long after. ‘‘When I started getting singing lessons and making my voice more classical – well, the more I learned, the more appreciative I was of the masters of opera.’’
He’s heading towards being amaster of the genre himself these days. In fact, Ioeluwould have been singing all over Europewere it not for the pandemic. He had contracts lined up for the next six months in Europe, UK, and Australia.
The Auckland-born bass-baritone had done the hard yards and at 35was hitting his stride, getting decent roles in top opera houses.
But like all his colleagues in the business, it all came to a screeching halt when Covid hit.
He’d come home in February 2020 for his brother’s wedding. His 12-day stay has turned into a year-plus sojourn. His international gigs may have been cancelled but on the bright side he’s been able to be with his family.
Ordinarily, Ioelu lives on a narrow boat in Newark-on-trent in the UK. His wife, Pauline, and their nine-year-old son, Isaac, live in Auckland. They traverse the globe to be together when time and schedules on both sides allow.
Being here to coach his son’s touch team, take him to swimming lessons – you can’t beat that, he says.
And he has not been short of work here – there have been gigs with Opera in a Days Bay Garden, Wellington Opera, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.
Opera might not have been on the radar early on in life but musicwas. His Samoan father was always a keen singer. His Kiwi/ Lebanese mother was a big promoter of music and had all her kids – Ioelu is the eldest of four – learning an instrument.
‘‘Learning an instrument is more than learning the music, it’s about discipline, how to focus, how to work towards a goal. I think that’s what she wanted for us,’’ he says.
He played piano through to grade eight. It was a building block for singing.
Through his musical, sporting and academic prowess he got a scholarship to St Kentigern College, a private Presbyterian secondary school in Pakuranga, east Auckland.
He joined the school band. Each year he’d play a different instrument to take the place of someone leaving. One year it was the piano, the next bass, the next he was taking up the drums.
He started a barbershop quartetwith his mates and discovered he could hold a pretty good tune.
He’d never seen singing as a career path, however. Even when his singing teacher took him to the New Zealand Opera School, where he soon enrolled, he did not knowwhether he had what it took to earn a crust with his voice.
He was the youngest person at the NZ Opera School at age 18. Listening to the singers, people who actually understoodwhat they were singing about, blew his mind. ‘‘I had no idea what opera was, and suddenly I was thrown into amaster class with an Italian coach. I was well out of my depth.
‘‘The coachwould stopme before I even sang a note, and told me it was going to be wrong by the way I openedmymouth.’’
But his teachers and mentors saw something special in him. They knew thiswas a voice worth developing. He was sent to Italy to learn the language so that he could give more meaning to the operas he was learning.
‘‘As a kid who had not been out of the Pacific, it changed my life. I remember stepping out in Florence and being [speechless]. I was 20 years old, and I’m thinking, this little Samoan boy from New Zealand is definitely out of his comfort zone, but I was just falling in love with everything.’’
He went on to study psychology and music at Auckland University. (He’d started out studying pre-med but decided it wasn’t for him.)
At 24 he was in New York doing his masters in classical voice at the Manhattan School of Music. He had two revelations in the Big Apple. One, that he wanted (‘‘No, had to’’) live there for the rest of his life. And, secondly, that he wasn’t that good.
‘‘I heard singers who were phenomenal. That’s when I realised I’d better startworking my butt off, otherwise it’d just be awaste. It kicked my butt a bit to be there.’’
It was the impending birth of his son, Isaac, that brought him back to Aotearoa. Ioelu missed the birth by a few days as his son was two weeks late in arriving, and he had to go back to fulfil a contract.
He credits his wife, whom he met at 15, as being the rock behind the scenes. Pauline gave birth in his absence and was on a plane to New Yorkaweek later with babe in arms.
Some toing and froing later, Ioelu and his family were due to go to San Francisco, where he was enrolled in a summer programme, but then he had ameeting with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and that changed everything.
He had already enjoyed her support as a young opera singer. Flying through London before heading to the US, he emailed his benefactor to ask if she was free to meet for a cup of tea and a chat about his career path.
Te Kanawa, he says, is rather direct. There were no introductions or small talk. She opened the door and said, ‘‘I’ve been trying to get in touchwith you for five years!’’
The meeting resulted in an invitation to audition for the National Opera Studio in London. The studio provides intensive training for young singers and prepares them for an international opera career.
Te Kanawa says she’s watched Ioelu develop into a young singerwith an excellent work ethic. ‘‘James is a highly motivated and very focused singer who has and continues to develop the tools for this difficult profession. His commitment to hard work and role development has always been impressive.’’
After a year with the National Opera Studio, Ioelu was auditioning and getting bigger and better roles all over Europe – quite often playing the bad guy, which suited him fine. Then Covid hit. ‘‘But life’s like that. It throws you all sorts of curve balls, and you just have to figure out how to get through it. I’m lucky to have a good support system with my family.’’
He plans to go back to the UK when that’s possible, but while here he is making use of his time. At the school where his mother is a teacher and assistant deputy principal, he’s been mentoring and helping the music students. He could see himself in that profession. Some day. Maybe.
That said, the beauty of the male voice is that it gets better with age. He’s got a lot of years left in the business. ‘‘My goal is to keep singing till I’m 70. Whether people will hire me is another story. If I’m lucky enough to get to that age and still be singing, that’s a life!’’
‘‘I remember hearing opera for the first time, thinking ‘What is