Voice of an Angel Takes Flight
By ALAN RIDING - New York Times
- Published: November 4, 2003
DERBY, 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.
Decca 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
Those 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 is nigh.
In 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 Ñ 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
So 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.' "
Her 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 arias."
For "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 opera singer."
Ms. 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
But 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."
Mr. 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.
Music 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.
Then, as now, though, she seemed to take it all in her stride.
Her 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 JosŽ Carreras and the bass-baritone Bryn
Her 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
Inevitably, 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."
February 14, 2004 23:00
thanks to Shore Fire Clients - Not for reproduction without
News Menu 2004