Every week, Frances Wilson-Fitzgerald endures the long commute from her home in Matakana to central Auckland to coach promising singers to perform on the world’s greatest stages. But she refuses to take a cent in payment, despite being a mentor to some of New Zealand’s foremost young opera stars. On Queen’s Birthday, she was appointed Officer of New Zealand, Order of Merit. She spoke to Mahurangi Matters editor James Addis about her ongoing love affair with music and teaching.
I was at St Mary’s College in Ponsonby and started learning the piano when I was 12 – which is rather late for the piano. We did not have a piano at home, so I had to practice at the school. But during the piano lessons and even during academic lessons you could hear singing floating across the playground. Sister Mary Leo taught there. She became a Dame in the end and, of course, taught Kiri Te Kanawa and Dame Malvina Major. I got fascinated with the sound of those voices, and when I got sufficiently capable on the piano, about three or four years later, I accompanied someone singing like that, and then I just realised, “Oh my God, this is the most incredible thing”.
I didn’t sing myself, but I got a scholarship to study piano in London at the Royal Academy of Music in the early 60s. I was 19 when I went to London. I went by sea because as a family we couldn’t afford to buy the ticket for the plane. Well, I went straight to a student flat. There were three of us. I was in heaven. It was a great time, a really great time. I did miss my family though. I could not afford to go home for about nine years. Those were the days of letter writing and I wrote letters every week, including a big letter to my mother and father. Sadly, my father died of a heart attack within the first eight months of my being in London. He was very young, only 42. My mother said I’m not going to let you come home for the funeral. If you come home, I’m not going to be able to let you go again. That was very tough.
I had the scholarship for five years and then I started teaching piano. People who were really good at other instruments – fiddle players or bassoon players – had to learn piano, so I ended up teaching them. But in truth, the singing appealed to me the most. I ended up playing for singing teachers as an accompanist. I must have sat in millions of lessons from millions of singing teachers, so I really learned the craft. I’d listen to what the teachers were saying. You do this thing and you do that other thing, and the tone improves and the sound improves. There’s a breathing system to sort out and there are resonance chambers to sort out. They taught how to pay attention to diction and still keep the breath moving, and how to attend to the tongue so that it’s not always blocking your throat. It’s a major, major study. It takes years to become a great singer, it really does. And I learned that good accompanists help the singer – subtly help. They help colour the music and they reinforce what the singer wants to do. I was fanatically interested, and I had to be because it can be a hard life.
Then in the 1980s I moved to America where I got to study with some of the world’s great opera singers of the last 50 years. People like Madame Virginia Zeani, Nicola Rossi Lemeni, Lucia Albanase and Renata Scotto. They were all exponents of what is known as the Bel Canto style of music – a very expressive style. Sister Mary Leo taught that style. And there I was learning it from some of the very best and that sound permeated through me.
In the late 80s, I was employed by Indiana University as a vocal coach and later moved to New York as a freelance teacher in voice. Having been an accompanist made me a better teacher because I had got into so many famous teachers’ studios. And in America I was surrounded by great, great teachers. As long as one’s ears were like blotting paper you soaked it up, and mine were like blotting paper.
In 2001, I co-founded the Auckland Opera Studio with my husband Stephen Fitzgerald and Dr John Peebles and his wife, Gillian Peebles, who live in Leigh. They are part of the board. You really can’t do anything without a board and without people to support you. This Order of Merit really belongs as much to them as it does to me. The idea of the studio is to train promising young New Zealand singers and give them the opportunity to perform at the very highest levels. I teach for nothing. Everything is free, otherwise the students would not be able to afford it. They come out of university and they are penniless, but with the right training they can have the hope of a brilliant career. In addition to teaching, we give them the opportunity to give recitals, such as our winter series at the Vivian Gallery. The last one of 2017 will be on July 15. We can’t afford to produce an opera every year, but we fundraise madly and put one on every two years. For students to make it, they must get good enough to win competitions. So they might go to Australia and win some of the big competitions there. Then staff in the overseas colleges – famous colleges – prick up their ears and they listen to these singers in a different way. They then use their influence to push those singers into good parts so that they stand out from the crowd.
Among those I’ve had the pleasure to teach include Marlena Devoe, who performed in our very first winter series at the Vivian. She has since accepted a place at the Mediterranean Opera Studio – a very prestigious teaching institute in Sicily. She’s been chosen to sing the lead part of Mimi in La Boheme in Sicily. She is also in the final of the Belvedere competition in Moscow – the biggest competition for young opera singers in the world. Then there is Pene Pati, who is playing the duke in Rigoletto in San Francisco, which is the big tenor part, the Pavarotti part. On stage with him is his brother, Amatai, whom I’ve also taught. They are doing so well. Coming up in September, the studio is putting on Vincenzo Bellini’s Capuleti e i Montecchi (Romeo and Juliet) at the Mercury Theatre in Auckland. Fittingly, the two leads, Madison Nonoa and Filipe Manu, are boyfriend and girlfriend and straight after the performance they are flying off to take up year-long scholarships at the Guildhall opera programme in London. They will be joined by two other members of the cast, Fredi Jones and Benson Wilson. Hundreds apply for the scholarships every year, but only 20 are accepted.
I teach a lot of Maori and Pacific Island singers. They have a natural talent. I’ve no idea why. It’s a great mystery, and I love it. They seem to be more aware of what their body is doing. If I say, “Your tongue is really blocking your throat and the air is not coming up as well as it should,” they will sing it again and say, “Oh yes, I see what you mean.”
Do I listen to popular music? Of course, I love it all. I love Adele, I love Beyoncé. I can see merit in them all. Judy Garland is one of my favourite singers ever. Adele would have made a very good opera singer, but she is earning money and she’s happy and she’s making millions of people in the world very happy. She’s darn good. And Elvis? Who can beat Elvis? That very low sound in his voice, so gorgeous. I loved him. But opera is different. It’s a disciplined art. You have to obey what is on the paper. It’s a higher art form because the music is written by geniuses and it has survived two or three hundred years. They were great minds, and it takes great minds to perform their works.