Wednesday, July 21, 2004

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Angela Pacienza
Canadian Press

Singer Hayley Westenra at poses at the Dupont Hotel in New York, recently. (AP/Jim Cooper)

TORONTO (CP) - Ever since the breakthrough success of the Lord of the Rings film series, the spotlight has been shining on New Zealand.

Benefiting from the country's newfound hipness is Hayley Westenra, a 17-year-old soprano whose classical singing is appealing to the easy listening crowd. Her elfin grace and ethereal falsetto have already made an impression with sales of over one million of her record Pure.

She's become the latest classical crossover success following in the footsteps of other youngsters like Josh Groban.

But while she's made it to pop charts in places like Australia, Japan and the U.K., her serene voice is still unknown to most North Americans (she's currently sitting at No. 10 on Canada's classical crossover chart).

That's about to change with a current promotional blitz of Canada and the United States, which also includes a campaign with Doritos alongside singer Nick Lachey, of Newlyweds' fame.

The bubbly teen, who is striking thanks to almond-shaped eyes and waist-length hair, makes her Canadian debut Thursday and Friday in Ottawa at a Lord of Rings symphony concert with composer Howard Shore. She'll sing solo vocal parts from the movie including Annie Lennox's Into the West.

A few days later, Westenra will visit Toronto where, with the help of the New Zealand tourism board, she'll perform for journalists and retail executives at a posh showcase set in a tony downtown hotel lounge.

On the phone between rehearsals in Ottawa, Westenra admits "now that people have seen Lord of the Rings and Whale Rider . . . definitely people are more aware of New Zealand and they're fascinated by it."

Under the guidance of her mom and dad, Westenra began pursuing a music career long before she hit puberty. A teacher encouraged her parents to enrol her in violin and piano classes after hearing her, at age six, sing at an elementary school Christmas pageant.

Four years ago the family helped record a demo CD in the hopes the then-12-year-old would be discovered.

"I didn't have a lot of faith it would happen. I kept on trying but in the back of my mind I was aware of my chances," she recalls.

The rest unfolds like any good rags-to-riches tale should. While busking in her hometown with her younger siblings (also musically inclined), she was discovered by a TV reporter. An item on the nightly news caught the attention of a local concert promoter who helped usher her towards Decca Records, which gave her an international recording contract.

"I was quite fortunate," she says.

Beatles producer George Martin helped with several of the arrangements while his son Giles produced the record, which shows off the young singer's magnificent vocal range and tone. The duo also wrote the ballad Beat of Your Heart.

Singing two songs in New Zealand's native Maori gives Westenra an Enya-esque new-age surreality. More traditional classical repertoire like Amazing Grace, In Trutina and Benedictus are handled with the poise and control of a seasoned pro. She improves Kate Bush's high-pitched shrieks on a rendition of the 1978 hit Wuthering Heights.

The cover is the closest the teen gets to popular music, although she lists the Black Eyed Peas, Nelly Furtado and Alicia Keys among her listening choices.

"I'm inspired by their music but I prefer singing more classical styles," she says.


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