Voice of an Angel Takes Flight
November 4, 2003
Jonathan Player for The New York Times
England Hayley Westenra is the stuff of dreams
for record companies gloomy over falling sales of
classical music. A bright-eyed 16-year-old with an
angelic voice, she is close enough to womanhood to
secure ample coverage in the girl-obsessed British
press. Add to that, her warm soprano voice has just
turned her new CD, "Pure," into one of the
fastest-selling classical debut albums ever.
Music Group, a British label owned by the Universal
Music Group, is almost breathless with excitement.
"When you're in the presence of beauty, it's
not something you have to think about," its publicity
pamphlet proclaims. "Whether it's aural or visual,
or in Hayley Westenra's case both, you tingle with
the feeling that your soul has been touched."
words were written before her 13-song medley of ballads
sold more than 290,000 copies here in seven weeks,
installing "Pure" at the top of Britain's
classical music charts. (The album will be released
in the United States on April 9.) Now, with Ms. Westenra
signed up for a $4.5 million five-album contract,
Decca may well be tingling with the feeling that salvation
contrast, Ms. Westenra herself has her feet planted
solidly on planet earth. This may be the high point
of her career, but she has been singing in public
on the street, in musicals, in concerts, in
talent contests for about as long as she can
remember. Indeed, while she is new to Britain, in
her native New Zealand her first two CD's sold 90,000
copies between them, with "Pure" selling
another 50,000 before its release here.
even the limelight is a little old hat for this high-spirited
teenager. "I guess in some ways I'm used to it,
and I don't think about it too much," she said
in a twangy Down Under accent. "I just deal with
each thing as it comes. I've been invited to do the
Royal Variety Show. I don't go, `Gosh, what am I going
to wear?' I just think, `Right, I'll do it.' "
youth forms part of her appeal, but her sweet-sounding
soprano voice is her real asset. Although it lacks
the color of a mature voice, it is bolstered by good
pitch, broad range and considerable strength. It is
also a voice in transition, one that she is learning
to care for. "I know it can be damaging to push
it too much," she said during the intermission
of a concert appearance in this industrial city of
the English Midlands. "I want to be sure I can
project it without damaging it. Perhaps I'll wait
a couple of more years before I start belting out
"Pure," in which she is backed by the Royal
Philharmonic Orchestra, she said she had picked songs
that suited her voice. These include two traditional
Maori songs, an excerpt from Carl Orff's "Carmina
Burana," "Amazing Grace" and several
sentimental ballads. "I'd say it's more of a
crossover between classical and pop," she said.
"I have a bit of light classical music on it
and a bit of easy listening," she said. "It's
funny when people say, `opera singer.' I'm not an
Westenra is appearing as a special guest on a concert
tour organized for Aled Jones, a former boy soprano
sensation who, now 32 and a light baritone, is still
immensely popular with older audiences. And it was
Mr. Jones who drew crowds of senior citizens to the
Assembly Rooms in Derby one recent evening.
Ms. Westenra's four songs and two duets with Mr. Jones
were warmly received, a reminder that the over 50's
are for the moment her natural public. After the concert,
she signed copies of "Pure" in the lobby.
Then she, her father, Gerald, and her new manager,
Steve Abbott, readied themselves for traveling to
Wales for the next day's concert.
not being paid for this," Mr. Westenra said.
"It's entirely promotional. But it's also a `learn
your craft' tour. After four months of recording,
it's good experience for Hayley to do concerts, to
get practice onstage."
Westenra, 43, a gemologist by profession, is accompanying
his daughter during the second half of 2003. Earlier
in the year, it was the turn of his wife, Jill, who
is now at home in Christchurch with their other two
children, Sophie, 13, and Isaac, 19, both also musicians.
runs in the family, but it was always Hayley who led
the way. When she sang at age 6 in a Christmas show
at her school, her teacher announced to her parents
that she had perfect pitch and should have music lessons.
She chose piano, violin and recorder, but it was soon
apparent that her voice was her best instrument. A
first place in a talent contest won her free lessons
in voice, dance and drama. She and her siblings then
took to peforming on the street. At 12, with the money
she earned, she rented a studio to record some songs
for friends. She sent copies of the CD to record companies
to see what might happen. In 2000 Universal New Zealand
signed her on and two hit albums followed.
as now, though, she seemed to take it all in her stride.
success led her to take singing lessons with New Zealand's
former opera star Malvina Major, a crucial step since
she learned, as she put it, "to keep my voice
in the right place." Since then, she has toured
with the popular English tenor Russell Watson and
performed at a festival in Wales this summer alongside
the tenor José Carreras and the bass-baritone
schedule before Christmas is still busier, with a
spot on the Royal Variety show in Edinburgh, an Amnesty
International concert in Trafalgar Square and no fewer
than four appearances in the Royal Albert Hall, two
with Mr. Carreras and Mr. Terfel. Then in April, the
Westenra family is planning to move to New York for
six months to coincide with the American release of
at least in Britain, she has been compared to Charlotte
Church, another young soprano, now 17, who made her
name here four years ago with a similar repertory.
So far at least, there is a difference. Ms. Church's
aura of innocence was duly shattered earlier this
year when London tabloids concluded she had an unsuitable
boyfriend. Further, her publicity shots now show her
as a grown woman with a seductive flash in her eyes.
In contrast, Ms. Westenra, exhibiting none of the
street savvy of many British girls of 16, seems happy
enough to embrace the double meaning implicit in "Pure."
guess the word seemed to fit the album," she
said cheerfully. "I see myself as pretty pure.
I know that's a lot to live up to. They thought my
voice was quite pure, and it is. It's natural. It's
not like I'm trying to force it to sound like anything
different. Yeah, I do see myself as pure."
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