Young Kiwi flying high

Classical supremo: after conquering her native New Zealand, teenage singer Hayley Westenra became the UK's fastest-selling debut classical artist
Classical supremo: after conquering her native New Zealand, teenage singer Hayley Westenra became the UK's fastest-selling debut classical artist

Hayley Westenra
Hampstead Heath
Saturday, July 10, 7.30pm

At only 18, Hayley Westenra has been a music industry star for three years already.

Made famous by a haunting and operatic version of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights, the New Zealander has been showing off her big, swelling voice at prestigious venues like the Sydney Opera House, the Albert Hall and Wembley Arena ever since.

Westenra's debut international album, Pure, went straight in at number eight in the UK pop album charts and at number one in classical charts, making her the fastest-selling debut classical artist of all time, ahead of Charlotte Church, Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli and Russell Watson.

The album turned gold in the UK in one week and has now hit double platinum, with sales in excess of £700,000.

Last week she was excited to be back home, where she provided the pre-match entertainment at the All Blacks versus British Lions rugby match in Wellington. Most of the time she lives in Chiswick.

"I'm pretty used to it now," she says of London. "I have been here for the last three years. I have spent a lot of time in London. I'm very much at home here.

"My mum and my dad are going to join me on my Asian tour. It can be very difficult. I'm on the phone to my family every couple of days. I do have people I can hang out with so I don't feel sorry for myself at all. I'm really enjoying it.

"The thing is, this is where my work is and I do have to be here. London makes the most sense."

As a teenager, having so much independence and a high income could equal disaster, but where other young stars have faltered, Westenra has managed to consistently keep her sobriety and elegance on the classical music scene. She even gives the expected line on cue: that she is too busy to have a boyfriend.

When asked why she is not as ostentatious with her cash as a certain Miss Charlotte Church, she shows her sweet nature with a pretty convincing sincerity.

"It is because she made her money at 13. I made the money at 15," Westenra says. "I'm not really the sort of person who would go out and go crazy. And I wouldn't imagine that she is like that either. But I think being surrounded by Kiwis keeps me grounded."

While she had no formal training in music, Westenra grew up playing the violin and piano.

But it was at the age of six, when she appeared in the school Christmas play, that it became apparent her voice was in another league.

The story goes that she and her sister used to go out busking in their home city of Christchurch. The pair quickly drew an enthusiastic crowd. "A woman asked us if we had recorded anything," she says.

The young buskers' fan was a journalist with a local television station and Hayley soon appeared on air. The appearance attracted the attention of a New Zealand concert promotion company, and a deal with Universal Music New Zealand soon followed.

Westenra's debut self-titled recording featured a mix of show music and classical pieces. lt was a clever marketing ploy, as she did not immediately restrict herself to one type of music.

"I don't think there is any harm in popularizing classical music," she explains positively. "You want to make the music accessible. People can be snobby about it really."

The album made Hayley the fastest selling local artist in New Zealand's history. This was soon followed by the Christmas album My Gift To You.

New Zealand opera legend Dame Malvina Major offered Hayley lessons after hearing her sing. Speaking of the young star's voice, she says: "It's absolutely musically true. A lot of young singers have beautiful voices but they have to be guided into that sort of clarity. She has it naturally."

Perhaps surprisingly, Westenra, whose new album, Odyssey, comes out in September, has yet to meet her home country's other major opera sensation, Kiri Te Kanawa. However, that is not to say that she doesn't mix with world renowned artists.

She counts the blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocceli as her biggest idol.

"I bought his album when I was 11 years old. I am a huge fan," she enthuses. "He's actually dueting on my album. It was quite surreal singing with him. One minute I'm singing along to his album in my bedroom, then I'm singing with him in front of a few thousand people."

In the pop world, the Bedingfield siblings, Daniel and Natasha, are another Kiwi success story. Westenra knows both of them, and first met Natasha in the loos at the Silver Clef awards in London last month.

Wearing a dress by a little-known Brick Lane designer, the lithe 18-year-old turned heads at the ceremony. Westenra always attends public events wearing clothes which are stylish and elegant.

But she says that deciding what to wear is not as effortless as it looks.

"It's always a major decision," she says in the manner of any other 18-year-old girl. "I make a few frantic phone calls to other performers going, What are you wearing?' But it's always a struggle. If it's a major event, they'll get a stylist. But that costs me money. If it's for a photoshoot, the publication pays for a stylist. But I like having control over what I wear. It would be easy to get a stylist it can be quite useful but it's hard to buy dresses I like that represent me."

Of course, Westenra does have a lot of advisers who work to keep her image in check. But as every teenager knows, whether famous or not, the people who are always there to support you are your parents.

"It's important to have someone who knows what they're talking about, who's on your side. I have got a great lawyer, I have got a good manager and two fantastic parents. They're great. As I'm getting older things are less and less controlled by them. I still run everything by them."

See Hayley Westenra perform music from her new album and some Maori songs at Kenwood on Saturday. Tickets are from £18 to £26 (£16 to £23 concessions). Visit the web site to book tickets, or call Ticketmaster on 0870 333 6206.

2:44pm today

Source: Keith S.


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