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New Zealand soprano grows into classical, pop styles
Soprano Hayley Westenra, 18, became a star in her native New Zealand and other international territories thanks to the 2 million-plus sales of her album 'Pure,' released in 2003.


Hayley Westenra

Opening for Il Divo
Saturday [4th February] at 8 p.m.
Borgata Hotel, Casino and Spa, Atlantic City
Tickets $125, $195
Call (609) 317-1000 or visit http://www.theborgata.com/

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It's a long way from New Zealand to New York, and Hayley Westenra had little time to make the trip. The 18-year-old singer closed a tour of her homeland Saturday night and opened a U.S. visit in Wallingford, Conn., Tuesday.

"I did gain a day coming over this way," she said. "I had two Sundays. It was very confusing when I was writing in my diary."

Westenra, a gifted soprano who sings a mixture of classical music and orchestrated pop songs, is opening shows for Il Divo, the international quartet of male vocalists who are stars of the classical crossover circuit. They appear Saturday at the Borgata in Atlantic City and Feb. 10 and 11 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

"I was a little apprehensive, but it went really well," Westenra said by cell phone on the road to Boston the day after the first show. "The crowd was fantastic. I've got a really great band. We had the one day to rehearse before the show."

In New Zealand, Britain, Japan and other international territories, Westenra is already a star, thanks to the 2 million-plus sales of her album "Pure,"recorded in 2003, when she was just 15. Here she's performed on a PBS special, done the "Today"show and other TV outlets, and recorded some movie themes, but she's still largely unknown. Opening for Il Divo should help.

"I am introducing myself to a lot of new people," Westenra said. "I do have fans who come along to the shows, but there's a lot of people who still don't know me."

The opening night results were good: "Last night I got a lot of positive feedback from the crowd."

Her new album, "Odyssey,"released in the fall, is a more mature effort than "Pure," with less of a dreamy, ethereal texture and some harder edges.

"Not too extreme," she said. "I haven't gone down the rock route. I'm still in the classical crossover genre."

She said she felt a lot more involved in the process of making the album, including co-writing one song.

"I did a bit of arranging as well on the album, which was a bit of a step up, a step in the right direction. I was involved in the mixing as well."

Westenra has the nerve to tackle some very familiar songs, among them "May It Be," which Enya sang as the closing theme for the first "Lord of the Rings"movie. That one has a strong New Zealand connection.

She also does "Both Sides Now," forever identified with composer Joni Mitchell and with Judy Collins' hit version.

"'Both Sides Now' is one that I really feel connected to," she said. "I thought I would take that risk."

On the classical side, a standout is "Quanta Qualia," a choral piece by the English contemporary composer Patrick Hawes

"My version doesn't vary too much from the original," she said. "We sort of brought out more of a solo line. Patrick wrote an extra vocal line for me to make it more of a solo piece, really."

She recorded it with producer Giles Martin, the son of Beatles producer Sir George Martin, at Air Studios in London, a former church

"I was surrounded by these stained glass windows. The acoustics are beautiful. I really enjoyed that," she said.

Westenra duets with tenor Andrea Bocelli on a song in English and Italian, "Dell'Amore Non Si Sa." Though they were never in the same room for the recording, she has performed on stage with Bocelli in New Zealand and Australia.

"It was easy to sort of imagine him in the room next to me," she said. "It didn't feel too distant."

On both her pop and classical material, she generally avoids the kinds of showy ornamentation and high-register flights of which she is clearly capable.

"I'm not really into kind of accessorizing the melodies too much," she said. "I sing the songs as I feel they need to be sung. It's not about showing off my vocal abilities. I try to hone in on the lyrics and sing naturally."

Last year she traveled to Los Angles to work with film composer James Horner ("Titanic") on his score for the movie "The New World," now in theaters. But though her performances are on the just-released soundtrack album, the director, Terrence Malick, didn't use much of the music in the actual film.

"The director wasn't keen on having musical themes running throughout the film, I was told, so it appears on the soundtrack but not in the film," she said.

After this leg of the Il Divo tour, she has some solo dates in the United States and Canada in March, before rejoining the group for more concerts in Europe.

"It'll be neat to go to places like Italy and Holland. My family originated from Holland," she said.

But a lot will happen before then, and she's concentrating on each night's performance.

"Last night I wasn't sure whether I was really excited or really nervous," she said. "You go through these stages. It's kind of weird. You're singing and you've got these thought processes running through your head: 'I have such control here. All eyes are on me.' And then you have moments of being completely immersed in the music, and they're really the best. It really takes you on a roller coaster ride. That's why it takes so long to wind down after a show."

Jim Bohen can be reached at (973) 428-6632 or jbohen@gannett.com.
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