On a role

Mar­lena Devoe — Opera singer

Metro Magazine NZ - - People To Watch - TEXT — JULIE HILL

One Sun­day, a few weeks ago, New Zealand-born Samoan opera star Mar­lena Devoe had the kind of mo­ment that dreams are made of. As un­der­study for the lead-so­prano role in the Verdi opera Fal­staff at the Royal Opera House in London, she never ex­pected to see the stage. But then the Puerto Ri­can singer Ana María Martínez took ill.

“It was bizarre be­cause that never hap­pens,” says Devoe. “But they pulled me in and said, ‘Ana María has al­ler­gies and can’t sing.’” Devoe hadn’t worked with the con­duc­tor. “I wish I’d had more time singing with the oth­ers but you take those chances when you get them.”

In Septem­ber, 31-year-old Devoe makes her de­but with New Zealand Opera, as Mimì in Puc­cini’s La Bo­hème. She’s happy for an ex­cuse to come home — by which she means both New Zealand and Samoa. “I go home ev­ery time I’m back in New Zealand. This time, I’m go­ing to my grand­fa­ther’s 80th. They al­ways ask me to sing at church and they’re al­ways so sur­prised that I don’t need to use a mic.”

This will be the fourth time she’s per­formed in La Bo­hème. The first was when she was a pri­mary-school stu­dent, when Dame Malv­ina Ma­jor took the role of Musetta. A teacher had over­heard Devoe’s re­mark­able voice and sug­gested her mum get her lessons; shortly af­ter­wards, she was ac­cepted into the Opera New Zealand chil­dren’s chorus. “It was a great first opera ex­pe­ri­ence as a child. I loved the cos­tum­ing and be­ing on stage. It gave me the bug and I haven’t stopped since.”

After univer­sity, Devoe trained at the Man­hat­tan School of Mu­sic in New York, then the Wales In­ter­na­tional Academy of Voice in Cardiff, where seven of the 15 stu­dents in her class were New Zealan­ders, in­clud­ing the Pati brothers Peni and Ami­tai and their cousin Moses Mackay — aka popera sen­sa­tions Sol3 Mio. “It’s nice to know that there are a few of us [Samoan-New Zealan­ders] around the world, all chas­ing the same dream.”

Her hero­ines in­clude Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Maria Cal­las and the Ro­ma­nian singer Vir­ginia Zeani, with whom she’s trained. At 92 years old, Zeani “still has a per­fect top B-flat, which is the high note of the bel canto reper­toire. She sings in the old Ital­ian style of singing and I as­pire to sing that way.”

Devoe’s al­ready blessed with a light, float­ing vo­cal qual­ity, in which notes be­gin softly then grad­u­ally blos­som. “My old teacher used to say I have quite a plan­gent qual­ity to my voice, so all the tragic hero­ines suit me.” She’s played Mimì twice, for the Mediter­ranean Opera Stu­dio and Fes­ti­val in Si­cily and the Lyric Opera in Dublin, where she was praised by the Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent for por­tray­ing “the frag­ile fig­ure of the con­sump­tive hero­ine with pos­i­tive con­vic­tion. Her clear so­prano range may be del­i­cately ex­pres­sive but it also shows a depth of pur­pose when need be.”

Devoe loves per­form­ing Mimì. “She’s an incredible char­ac­ter. It’s not vo­cally dif­fi­cult but it’s emo­tion­ally ex­haust­ing. She goes through a range of emo­tions through­out the opera. It’s ev­ery­thing a so­prano would want in a role.” Some di­rec­tors she’s worked with have im­plied that Mimì was a pros­ti­tute. “She’s more in­no­cent than that to me.”

It can be in­tim­i­dat­ing to tackle such fa­mil­iar mu­sic. “So many au­di­ence mem­bers would have heard Pavarotti singing ‘Che gel­ida man­ina’ or Mirella Freni singing ‘Mi chia­mano Mimì’, and they’ll come into the opera with the ex­pec­ta­tion of those great voices. So you have to make it your own. You ex­per­i­ment with phras­ing, you ex­per­i­ment with colours. You can’t make it like theirs or you’ll just fail!”

Devoe is de­lighted that so many women (di­rec­tor, set de­signer, cos­tume de­signer and light­ing de­signer) are in­volved with the pro­duc­tion, and that the cast is al­most all Kiwi. “That’s quite spe­cial. It’s just so en­cour­ag­ing when the na­tional com­pany hires you.”


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