Handel and a holiday

Madeleine Pierard in the John Copley production of La Boheme at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Photos: Supplied
Madeleine Pierard in the John Copley production of La Boheme at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Photos: Supplied
Madeleine Pierard as Lisa in La Sonnambula at The Royal Opera, Covent Garden.
Madeleine Pierard as Lisa in La Sonnambula at The Royal Opera, Covent Garden.
Madeleine Pierard takes a selfie with her husband, Michael Joel, and daughters, Eleanor and Chloe.
Madeleine Pierard takes a selfie with her husband, Michael Joel, and daughters, Eleanor and Chloe.

Soprano Madeleine Pierard is looking forward to her first break in nearly two years but first she will step on to the Dunedin Town Hall stage to perform Handel’s Messiah, she tells Rebecca Fox.

Madeleine Pierard is dreaming of a hammock, a drink and watching her children play under the sprinkler in her parent's backyard.

That is what she has planned for her Christmas holiday- her first since her second daughter Eleanor was born 20 months ago. Her oldest child, Chloe, is 4.

''I started working on an opera and was in rehearsals when she was 5 days old. I had her with me constantly and breast-fed. I haven't stopped since.''

But first she has her Dunedin performance of Messiah with City Choir Dunedin and fellow soloists mezzo-soprano Claire Barton, English-born tenor Iain Tetley and bass Jared Holt.

While she has performed the traditional Christmas piece ''about nine million times'', she says it never gets old.

''I find it more exciting and somewhat spiritual than challenging.''

This visit to Dunedin also marks 20 years since she first performed at the Dunedin Town Hall with the New Zealand Secondary Students' Choir.

''It's where I met several of my lifelong friends, including the local glorious soprano, Anna Leese, whom I love dearly.''

The visit is also a homecoming of sorts as her husband's (Michael Joel) family live in Dunedin.

''Family is my greatest attraction. But it's a wonderful city.''

Coming from a musical family - Mum was a pianist, singer and actress and Dad a guitarist and clarinettist - Pierard has been singing since she was a child growing up in Napier.

''We all sang constantly as a family. It was just normal to us. We all played at least one instrument and three out of five of us started singing seriously in choirs, rather than setting out to be soloists - Anna (now an opera singer and founder of Festival Opera in Hawkes Bay), Margot (a jazz singer) and myself.

''My brother, Tom, sings professionally, too, as a recording artist in his one-man band.

''You could say we've all benefited hugely from being immersed in it as children.''

Despite her upbringing, Pierard, who is now based in West London, initially set out to study medicine so her career as a singer came about ''sort of by accident'', she says.

She started a BMSC (biomedical science) degree alongside a BA and BMus at Victoria University, and was studying musicology and composition.

''Singing came quite a bit later.

''It wasn't until winning the Lexus Song Quest in 2005 that I considered it a viable option at all.''

She went on to study at the RCM International Opera School in London, followed by the National Opera Studio, where she was sponsored by The Royal Opera.

Her association with The Royal Opera is a ''privilege I will never become complacent about''.

Every time she has performed on the stage at The Royal Opera in Covent Garden has been a ''life-affirming'' highlight.

''That stage has such history and such an astonishing energy, I can honestly say that it has supported a lot of my best singing.

''When you're there and performing on that stage alongside your idols, you really do feel that you're living the dream.''

She was a Jette Parker Young Artist for two years from 2010 and for The Royal Opera, Pierard has sung the roles of Contessa di Folleville (Il Viaggio a Reims), Musetta (La Boheme), Lisa (La Sonnambula), Sandmann (Hansel und Gretel), Sacerdotessa (Aida), Noemie (Cendrillon), Berta (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), Wood Nymph (Rusalka) and Costanza in Haydn's L'isola disabitata in Hobart, Tasmania. Also for The Royal Opera, she has covered the roles of Violetta, Donna Anna, Marfa (The Tsar's Bride) and Leila (Les Pecheurs de Perles).

She also featured in the BBC's landmark television series Maestro at the Opera in association with The Royal Opera House, singing the roles of Rosalinde, Donna Anna and Musetta.

Singing has also taken Pierard, who enjoys listening to an eclectic mix of music ''certainly quite R&B-heavy'', to ''wonderful'' places.

''I've sung in the Vatican, The Forbidden City and even on a galleon. In China, I've performed in Chengdu, Beijing and Tianjin which have all been fascinating experiences.''

Her repertoire ranges from baroque and bel canto masterpieces to 20th century and contemporary compositions.

''The immersive aspects of opera are incredible, but the rehearsal periods are often very long - by necessity - but it's particularly difficult to manage if you have a family.''

She enjoys immersing herself in the character for such long periods.

''Emotions in opera are often highly charged which makes the experience both exhausting and exciting in equal measure. The music is a gift and the main draw of opera for me but I also love the collaborative nature of it - all those people at the top of their craft: designers, directors, conductors, orchestral players, chorus, costume designers, set builders, prop builders, stage management, lighting and sound design, music preparation coaches and, of course, your colleagues singing alongside.

''Some amazing friendships are made in every opera I do.''

By contrast, concert and oratorio generally only entail one or two days of rehearsal as opposed to four to five weeks, she says.

''You don't form the relationships with colleagues and the music (necessarily) that you do whilst working on opera. The high of performing is fairly equal with both, I would say.''

As a mother of two, her daily routine is determined by her children.

'' I fit my practice and coaching around them when I'm not in rehearsals every day.''

And like any other mother, she does not have much spare time.

''I live near Kew Gardens [in West London] and love spending as much time there as possible with my girls.

''My two main non-musical hobbies are boxing and cake decorating, the latter only after the children have gone to sleep. I used to run a lot too, but a chronic foot injury has meant that is no longer an option.''

To see
City Choir Dunedin presents Handel’s Messiah, Tuesday, Dunedin Town Hall, 7.30pm.

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