The doyenne of New Zealand choral singing advises RICHARD BETTS to take opportunities when they arise, whether you think you’re ready or not.
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How is Karen Grylls not Dame Karen?
The internationally respected conductor and lecturer, whose Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir brings opera-themed concerts to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, has been among the most accomplished and important figures in New Zealand music for more than 30 years.
It’s strange to think it now, but when Grylls returned from studying in the US in the mid-1980s, she wasn’t certain she was up to the task of taking over from Peter Godfrey, who at that point was the senior figure in New Zealand’s choral community.
“Peter decided to extract himself from the national choirs and from his work at Auckland University,” Grylls remembers. “I received a call asking if I was interested in an audition. Peter was from King’s College Cambridge; he came with a huge pedigree. One looks at that and thinks, these are big shoes, I’m not sure I’m ready.”
She turned to the words of her professor at the University of Washington, Abraham Kaplan, a long-time associate of Leonard Bernstein. “[Kaplan] had given me great advice, he said you’re never ready, you take the opportunity because no one will pick up the phone tomorrow.”
Grylls took her opportunity. In 1989 she became Music Director of the National Youth Choir (now the New Zealand Youth Choir) and still holds the position of Artistic Director. Under her leadership, the group claimed several important international competitions, including the Choir of the World title.
In 1998 Grylls formed Voices New Zealand to be the national choir. Within months she was winning prizes with them, too. She says that in the early days it was necessary to establish the choir’s international reputation, but that Voices doesn’t compete any more.
“We don’t need to,” Grylls reasons. “The Royal New Zealand Ballet doesn’t enter competitions, the NZSO doesn’t enter competitions.” Fair point, and a decent guide to the levels Grylls aims for.
The constant striving for excellence means that although she’s a thoroughly charming interviewee, Grylls has a reputation for being tough on her singers. She’s entirely unapologetic.
“I am tough,” Grylls admits. “We have a lot of fun but I don’t muck around. I won’t stand there waiting for people to learn their notes.”
Do singers in Grylls’ choirs understand the level she expects?
“I think they have an idea but I don’t think they really do. I expect a lot because if you don’t ask you don’t get.”
That’s one thing if your singers are full-time professionals. Voices New Zealand’s are not.
“It’s tricky,” Grylls says. “They’re so willing and so wanting to do it, but until I can say, ‘Here’s a half-time salary and here are 10 sessions on vocal production with so-and-so,’ I do what I can and so do they. It’s a mark of their incredible commitment that here we are, 21 years later, and [singers] still come because of the sort of music we do and the standard at which we aspire to do it.”
The upcoming Voices Love Opera shows feature a compact 16-member choir and four solo singers – the well-established figures of Morag Atchison, Catrin Johnsson and Andrew Grenon, as well as the young bass Will King. In a first for the choir, the staging is directed by Jacqueline Coates, whose previous work includes NZ Opera’s inventive 2018 production of La Boheme.
With its programme of operatic staples from the likes of Bizet, Donizetti and Puccini, Voices Love Opera is an uncharacteristically mainstream programme for Grylls. One of the hallmarks of Voices New Zealand – along with a beautiful floating soprano sound – is its regular selection of less-performed works. Recent years have seen the choir sing compositions from hip-as-it-gets American composer Mason Bates, and New Zealand’s Warren Maxwell, a founding member of reggae-soul group Trinity Roots.
Grylls is unapologetic about performing unfamiliar music, too.
“I think Voices has the mantle to introduce music and get our audiences to where they’ve been forever in Europe,” she says. “If you don’t introduce it, people won’t know.”
- Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir performs Voices Love Opera, 16-18 October, Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington. For more, see www.voicesnz.com/event/voices-love-opera/