• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The new Kiwi opera stars powering La Bohème

Pulled by music: from left, baritone Julien Van Mellaerts, soprano Marlena Devoe and tenor Thomas Atkins. Photo/Angie Humphreys

Rising Kiwi opera stars Julien Van Mellaerts, Marlena Devoe and Thomas Atkins are home from London for Puccini’s famous tragedy. 

What does it take to be a professional opera singer? A voice, yes. Unwavering commitment and years of training, check. An ability to sing and act in a language other than your own while playing a character from some distant era. That, too.

There are a few other requirements that become apparent after spending some time talking to three of the young stars of La Bohème, NZ Opera’s forthcoming production of Puccini’s evergreen weepy set in late-19th-century Paris.

RelatedArticlesModule - Kiwi opera stars La Boheme

Such as having survived eye-watering overseas study fees, then being able to cope with the constant rejection of the audition process. Once you are on your way, there are the financial hazards of the opera singer’s gig economy.

Oh, and there other, more unusual challenges. Such as being brave enough to wear a special mask designed to keep the bugs at bay and your vocal cords humidified on long-haul flights. Baritone Julien Van Mellaerts swears by them. “No one talks to you and you scare the kids kicking the seat behind you.”

This provokes roars of laughter from Van Mellaerts (30), tenor Thomas Atkins (28) and soprano Marlena Devoe (31) as they sit in the boardroom of NZ Opera’s Parnell, Auckland, offices in a break from rehearsals to talk to the Listener. All three are back from their bases in London. All three boast CVs filled with competition and scholarship wins, performances around the world and roles in opera productions across the UK and Europe.

In La Bohème, Atkins and Devoe are in the romantic roles of poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimi. Van Mellaerts is Schaunard, one of the Rodolfo’s three bohemian flatmates.

Coming home to make their NZ Opera debuts is a very big deal for them – and not just because Atkins’ mother has reportedly bought 37 tickets to the Wellington shows. This is a chance to show all their hometown supporters how far they’ve come …

Devoe: We grew up here. We know this opera company. To come back and sing a principal role is a huge deal for me, as is having my family being able to come to see me do what I do. That means a lot. It’s a bit daunting as well.

Van Mellaerts: This is the company you strive to work with when you are growing up in New Zealand.

Atkins: Yeah, we were the guys sitting there in the audience going, “That is what we want to do.”

Van Mellaerts. Photo/Angie Humphreys

So, why opera?

Van Mellaerts: Honestly, I couldn’t do anything else.

Devoe: You’re not qualified.

Van Mellaerts: Well, there is that. There has always been something about music that has attracted me and it is something I can never put down. I am sure we could all do other jobs but there’s something about singing that draws us.

You are always getting better. You’re always learning something, you are always with interesting people, you’re travelling the world to do these different things. There’s something very exciting about that. It makes it hard to do something else. I just love singing. There are these stories we get to communicate and that’s the big thing for me.

Devoe: That’s a big thing for me, too – the music we get to sing, the stories we get to tell. I mean, we get to experience emotions that you don’t get to experience in everyday life all the time. That’s the reason we do what we do – because it’s so exciting to fall in love again or to experience a loss. It’s emotionally draining. But it’s so exciting.

Atkins: It’s very rare to love the job you do and it’s not like we go to work every day. We just live what we do. But there’s also the reality of the situation, which is quite different – the amount of work it takes, the amount of study, the cost of study. Getting to where we are now has taken a long time.

Devoe. Photo/Angie Humphreys

What did your friends think of your interest in opera when you were growing up – did they think you were a bit weird?

Devoe: No. A lot of my friends thought what I did was cool.

Atkins: I still think Julien is a bit weird [laughter]. In my group of mates from school, they were all in the first XV and I was the only musician, and no one ever questioned it.

Van Mellaerts: I was the same. If you’re good at something, they don’t seem to question it. It was never something I was ashamed of and so they didn’t bother me about it.

And now?

Van Mellaerts: It’s so out of the norm, really, isn’t it? To the average Kiwi, this isn’t a normal job. A friend of mine asked last night, “What do you actually do?”

Atkins: A friend of mine was like, “Do you do this full-time now?” What do you mean “now?” What do you think I have been doing all these years?

Heading to London is a well-trodden path for New Zealand opera singers. Does that help?

Devoe: You really do start at the bottom there and make your way up.

Atkins: When people think of Kiwi opera singers, they think very well of them. We have a very good reputation for being hardworking and talented.

Devoe: If you make the journey across the world, it shows you are serious about what you do.

So how bohemian an existence do you have to live there? Are you dying of cold in your artist garrets like the characters in the opera?

Van Mellaerts: I was doing that when I was flatting at the University of Otago. They’ve got double glazing in most flats in London.

Atkins: The great thing about London is the access to all the art in every form. There are always tickets to all of the West End shows, opera and all the fringe opera and theatre that’s going on, which is great.

So you’re living monk-like or nun-like lives there to preserve your voices?

Devoe: Well, you do have to make some sacrifices. Okay, maybe just one glass of wine tonight … or a bottle.

Van Mellaerts: You find yourself not being in loud places because you don’t want to shout across the room.

Atkins: You only get one set of vocal cords. If you’re an athlete, you’re not going to go and do something stupid, are you? So it’s exactly the same for us. The voice is just a different part.

Van Mellaerts: London is a great place to be, but we work a lot in Europe and that’s important for us. You can’t build a career back home. Basically, people are going to book if they see you’ve been booked by other people.

Atkins. Photo/Angie Humphreys

Which means auditions, presumably, and lots of them. How do you cope with that competitive process?

Van Mellaerts: Most opera singers face more rejection in a day than most people do in a lifetime.

Devoe: But there is no point in worrying about it because if you’re booked for the job it’s because you’re the best person for that job.

Van Mellaerts: You’re competing with yourself. It just so happens that there are other people out there competing with themselves as well.

Atkins: There is so much going on in opera. The voice is base level. When you go into an audition, everyone can sing. It’s everything else you bring.

Like what?

Atkins: Well, it’s acting, it’s musicality, it’s how you communicate the story, and then there are intangibles such as stage presence.

Devoe: Which you can’t do anything about. You have it or you don’t.

Atkins: There are some people you see on stage who you are drawn to and you can’t exactly put it into words, but you know they have something.

Van Mellaerts: A lot of young singers worry about how to sing and they get very caught up in that. But you have to have the ability to let that go and remember that you are just there to tell a story.

Devoe: Hopefully, with all the work you have put in, it will just be there so that you can forget about it and focus on telling the story.

So singing pop music never appealed?

Devoe: God, you do not want to hear me singing pop music.

Atkins: I’m not pretty enough.

Van Mellaerts: Your hair could do it.

Atkins: My hair could do it.

La Bohème by NZ Opera, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland, September 13-23; the Opera House, Wellington, October 4-13.

This article was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.