Ten years ago, New Zealand soprano Anna Pierard exited the European opera circuit to return home to Hawke’s Bay. Now she’s helping young people find their voice and place in the world
1990-1995 New Zealand Secondary Students Choir and New Zealand Secondary Schools’ Symphony Orchestra “Music was the backdrop to our lives,” says Anna whose parents Jane (a music teacher and pianist) and Louis Pierard (a newspaper editor and clarinettist) produced five super-musical children including two opera stars – Anna and her UK-based sister Madeleine. Anna’s “noisy and wonderful childhood” imbued her with “a sense of security which was a privilege”. She learned the viola from the age of six but her engagement with singing didn’t take hold until her early teens when she was inspired by her aunt, London-based soprano Catherine Pierard, whose CDs were played at home. High school was not her greatest gig. “I didn’t connect with the curriculum; I wanted to be creative and was a music nerd.” With a good ear and quick mastery of music theory, she joined the New Zealand Secondary Students Choir and the New Zealand Secondary Schools’ Symphony Orchestra (viola).
1996-1999 Eastern Institute of Technology, Diploma of Performing Arts Anna’s identity as a singer was cemented in a poignant moment with her tutor while studying for her Diploma of Performing Arts at the Eastern Institute of Technology in Hawke’s Bay. “I was practising with Estonian opera singer Anne Reissar when she said, ‘Anna, sing like that and you are a world-beater.’ It made me believe in myself.” A rejection from Victoria University’s New Zealand School of Music “built my resilience”. She studied classics instead, toured Europe with the New Zealand Youth Choir and stopped off in London where she gained entry to three prestigious music schools.
2000-2004 Guildhall School of Music & Drama Anna chose the Guildhall School of Music & Drama – “it was a leap of faith which helped define my life.” She gained a BMus and MMus (her thesis was on the presence of landscape in New Zealand music) and met fellow student and now husband José Aparicio, a gifted Spanish tenor, flautist and conductor. “When I arrived in London a gypsy at Oxford Circus said to me, ‘ You’ll get some papers – sign the green one.’ Afterwards I realized the enrolment form for Guildhall was green.” 2004-2008 Living and performing in Europe Anna completed the prestigious two-year master programme at De Nieuwe Opera Academie in Amsterdam regarded as a career springboard for highly talented young opera singers. On graduating she was snapped up by La Monnaie, the Belgium Opera in Brussels. Immersed in the rich cultural landscape of Europe she pursued a rigorous schedule of contracts across London, Barcelona, Vienna, Strasbourg, Florence and Valencia where she and José married. “It’s the life of an athlete. You train, perform and sleep.”
2009 Homecoming The global recession and the imminent arrival of their first child triggered a return to Aotearoa. When her five-week- old daughter Eva was still in a bassinet, Anna starred in the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra’s performance of Madame Butterfly. “Our baby was a gorgeous distraction from any sense of loss we felt about leaving our careers in Europe. We have no regrets.”
2014 Opera brings optimism While Anna now juggles family life – Eva is eight and Javier is six – with singing teaching and operatic roles with NZ Opera, the NZSO and others, an overriding passion propels her life.
In 2014, together with Sarah Walmsley, she established Project Prima Volta – a groundbreaking opera education model which seeks to alleviate the mental-health pressures faced by teenagers. It’s being lauded for its ability to deliver social change and turn young people’s lives around. “We’re using opera as a tool to build confidence, respect, ambition and a work ethic. Music is a tonic, an escape. The results are huge.” Project Prima Volta offers 30 Hawke’s Bay teenagers a year-long programme of mentoring and coaching, culminating in their inclusion in the chorus of Festival Opera – ‘Opera with a Conscience’ – a Hawke’s Bay opera company founded in tandem with Project Prima Volta. At the annual Art Deco Festival in Napier it stages a dazzling opera featuring international stars alongside Prima Volta students. “We call on our opera friends in Europe and say, ‘Come for a working holiday to New Zealand’. The impact of the collaboration is enormous.” While Project Prima Volta uses music to transform lives, Anna says the project has enriched her own. She is head of programmes and development for Prima Volta Charitable Trust and a director of Festival Opera.