Farewell with ‘Messiah’

Paul Whelan has taken on many roles over the years. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED.
Paul Whelan has taken on many roles over the years. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED.
Glyndebourne, Carnegie Hall, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, the opera houses of Europe and the United States — lyric bass Paul Whelan has performed at them all.

He has sung Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, performed Haydn’s Creation with the Norwegian Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra and performed as the High Priest of Bel (Nabucco) at the Teatro Municipal de Santiago and Delius’ Sea Drift in Osaka, Japan.

Whelan says there are not many countries in the world where he has not sung.

Since leaving New Zealand in 1988 to study and forge a career as an opera singer, Whelan, who grew up in Christchurch, has had many career highlights.

Apart from the "usual" highlights of Covent Garden, The Met and the Bolshoi, singing the Messiah in the Kremlin in 1992 stands out.

"It was thought to be the first performance of Handel’s Messiah in Russia."

Other concerts that come to mind were in Jerusalem, Monte Carlo, New Orleans and northern Scotland.

And, of course, he also rated performances back home in New Zealand such as the role of Daland (Der fliegende Hollander) and as Nick Shadow (The Rake’s Progress) for New Zealand Opera.

In Eugene Onegin with Lyric Opera Kansas City in 2017.
In Eugene Onegin with Lyric Opera Kansas City in 2017.
Covid-19 has enabled him to add to his New Zealand performance list.

He was booked to come to New Zealand to perform Somnus in Semele with Opera New Zealand. Having spent six months in locked-down New York, home looked good.

"It was the only thing in my diary that wasn’t cancelled."

So he brought his wife and son home to Christchurch for a break from lockdown and ended up staying 18 months.

"We kept extending the visit every few months. My son was able to go to school here instead of doing it online. It was a wonderful experience for him as he’s lived his whole life in America."

It meant Whelan could keep on working, performing with the Christchurch City Choir for Messiah, and with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra for Mozart’s Requiem.

"It was the one place in the world where you could still perform. I was very lucky."

This year alone he has performed in Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem with the Christchurch City Choir at the Christchurch Town Hall, Rachmaninoff’s The Bells at the Auckland Town Hall, Beethoven’s Fidelio with the Auckland Philharmonia and Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Wellington Opera.

In Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno D’Ulisse In Patria at the Grange Opera Festival in the United Kingdom...
In Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno D’Ulisse In Patria at the Grange Opera Festival in the United Kingdom in 2017.
Whelan also worked with musician Tim Finn, of Crowded House, appearing as Captain James Cook in Ihitai ’Avei’a — Star Navigator for Opera New Zealand.

He is squeezing in two last performances of Messiah, one in Dunedin with City Choir and the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra before he jets back to New York to rejoin family and begin a series of Christmas engagements.

"I’ll be resuming my life over there."

But that is not to say he has not enjoyed his time in New Zealand. Other than returning home for work, this is the longest he has spent in the country since leaving.

"I’ve loved being in New Zealand. It’s been great to live here and there is a strong chance I’d like to come back here one day."

In Semele with Opera New Zealand last year.
In Semele with Opera New Zealand last year.
Resuming life in New York means beginning his jet-setting lifestyle again as he criss-crosses the world for performances.

"I’m always getting on a plane for work; it’s what’s required to perform at an international opera level."

It is a lifestyle he never imagined, growing up in Christchurch, even though he got involved in music at Burnside High School.

"It never occurred to me you could make a living from it."

On a "whim", he auditioned and got into music college in Wellington and discovered he could make a career out of dressing up in "silly clothes", acting, singing and dancing.

"I really clicked with it and found a home."

He has managed to make a living out of being a freelance singer but admits it is a tough profession to stay in.

"I take a long view. I ride the waves, basically. [For] anyone who chooses to be an artist there are payoffs between an interesting job you love doing and job security.

"It works for me."

As Captain Ross in the world premiere of Stuart MacRae’s Anthropocene with the Scottish Opera in...
As Captain Ross in the world premiere of Stuart MacRae’s Anthropocene with the Scottish Opera in 2019.
Whelan loves meeting and performing with a range of people.

"It deals with human emotions, beauty and sound.

"It’s a sport; it requires athletic prowess to sing well."

Covid has been one of those waves to ride and he knows how lucky he has been in being able to come back to New Zealand.

"It’s been bad for a lot of my colleagues. I’m very conscious of how lucky I’ve been personally."

Another benefit of spending time in New Zealand had been getting to know the talented bunch of young singers coming through in this country.

"There is a fantastic bunch of young singers who are world-beating at the moment."

He is looking forward to performing Messiah, written by Handel in 1741, in Dunedin alongside soprano Rebecca Ryan, of Oamaru, alto Claire Barton, of Dunedin, and tenor Oliver Sewell, from Christchurch.

The concert will be conducted by David Burchell.

"It’s a great Christmas tradition and makes it feel like Christmas. It’s a masterpiece of one great tune after another."

To see:

Handel’s Messiah by City Choir Dunedin, December 7, Dunedin Town Hall, 7.30pm

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