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A down-to-earth teen star
Hayley Westenra has topped the pop charts from Britain to Japan, but her New Zealand roots have kept the singer well grounded, she tells Steven Mazey.
Hayley20060303 - CBC Ottawalisten to 11 minutes of (streaming) chat from CBC Ottawa - 10MB - Zero-wait.
(there is some distortion on the original track which cannot be easily removed)

She was on the phone to talk about her three-night gig with the National Arts Centre Orchestra this week, but the 18-year-old New Zealand singer also had a question for an Ottawa reporter: Would she be able to skate on the Rideau Canal when she arrived in the city this week?

"I've heard a lot about the ice skating in Ottawa. I'm not a great skater, but I'd love to try it if the ice is open," said Hayley Westenra, whose first album, Pure, recorded when she was just 15, sold nearly two million copies. It made the pop charts in Britain, Japan and Australia and made Westenra New Zealand's biggest musical export since Kiri Te Kanawa.

Though she's not yet a household name in North America, Westenra has topped charts in Britain, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong. She's sung for the Queen and Tony Blair, she's performed concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House, she appeared on the U.S. television series American Dreams, and she once sang for a crowd of 200,000 in her home country. She's sung duets with Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel and, on her most recent CD, Odyssey, tenor Andrea Bocelli.

So it's refreshing to hear her still sounding like a bubbly teenager as she talks about looking forward to a taste of Canadian winter and the possibility of outdoor skating. In an interview, she's thoughtful and articulate, with none of the jaded, been-there-done-that tone or the self-absorption that has been known to develop in teenage pop or film stars who suddenly find themselves making large amounts of money and having their lives managed by agents and publicists.

On Pure and on Odyssey, which Universal Records released in Canada last fall, Westenra applies a sweet, pure-toned soprano to folk, pop and light classical and opera tunes in sometimes new-agey arrangements.

"If you like the singer Enya, then Hayley will be a very special treat!" the NAC says in its ads for the concerts. Westenra's sound and style also recall British soprano Sarah Brightman and the young Welsh soprano Charlotte Church, to whom Westenra has often been compared. Like Church, there's a certain sameness to Westenra's interpretations, and she has the limited emotional range you'd expect in a singer who is still in her teens. But it's a sound her fans love, and it's kept her busy on the international concert circuit for the last three years.

It's the kind of success that could easily overwhelm a teenager, but Westenra says she's managed to keep level-headed about it all. Until a year ago, she says, one of her parents travelled with her for all of her concert tours, and though she now travels on her own and lives in London, Westenra keeps in touch with her family and visits regularly.

"My parents have made a huge difference to my state of mind as I've gone through all of this, and I've got a lot to thank them for," says Westenra, who grew up in the southern New Zealand city of Christchurch. "They've been my sounding board on everything. I think my New Zealand upbringing helps as well. It's a very grounding, wholesome kind of place, and if you can hold on to that amongst all the craziness of the showbiz world, you're doing OK."

When the Citizen caught up with her last week, she was in Seattle, where she was opening for the pop-classical male quartet Il Divo. She has been touring the U.S. with the singers and in the spring will tour Europe with the quartet, a trip that will keep her on the road and living in a suitcase through May.

Her performance in Ottawa, in which she will join the NACO as part of its pops concert series, is her second engagement with the orchestra.

Westenra made her Canadian debut at the NAC in 2004, in the orchestra's sold-out performances of music from the Lord of the Rings.

For this week's performances, Westenra will be featured in the second half of the concert. Conductor Jack Everly will conduct light classics in the first half, followed by Westenra with the kind of mix that has marked her recordings and concert tours. She'll offer May It Be from Lord of the Rings, the Maori song Pokarekare Ana, Orff's In Trutina from Carmina Burana, the Puccini aria O mio babbino caro, the Pie Jesu from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem and Amazing Grace.

While classical music purists raise eyebrows at the idea of singers as young as Westenra and Charlotte Church tackling opera selections when they haven't developed the proper vocal technique to sing them, Westenra says she's aware of the limits of her 18-year-old voice, and she and her teachers choose her classical pieces carefully.

She can handle the brief and hummable Puccini aria, for example, but she's not planning to tackle Wagner.

"Classical pieces are more demanding than folk or pop material," says Westenra, who continues to work with voice teachers in London and New Zealand when she isn't on tour. "I'm very aware of what I'm capable of. When I do classical repertoire, I never push myself to do pieces that I'm not ready for, and there's no one else trying to push me to do them, either.

"I'm very conscious about the state of my voice, and I'm quite disciplined about trying to rest it between performances as much as I can, although with the kind of back-to-back concerts you sometimes do on tour it can be hard. But I trust my gut instinct on vocal matters, and I think I'm doing OK."

She says her love of singing started early, when she sang in choirs and community musicals, and she sometimes busked with friends on street corners to earn some spending money. She used the proceeds from her busking for a demo CD that helped her land a record contract in New Zealand.

She says some teachers who heard her sweet but untrained soprano when she was in her early teens suggested she should pursue serious vocal training with an eye to a possible career in opera. But she didn't want to be limited to one kind of music.

"I love so many different styles, and I'd hate to restrict myself. What I'm doing now is obviously not the road to an opera career. If I decide one day I wanted to pursue that route, if I've been careful, I think I could still pursue that.

"I don't think I'm damaging my voice by singing pop or folk. I want the opportunity to explore and find my musical niche. I'm really still developing my own sound and style."

She says the music on her iPod lately has ranged from classical ("when I want to de-stress") to the Beatles and Aretha Franklin.

"Sometimes I put on a bit of Aretha to get me going in the morning. I Say a Little Prayer is one of my favourites."

She says her British manager helps her to decide how much touring to take on, but she's also learned over the past few years how much she can handle and still keep her voice in good shape.

"I've been in situations where I felt I was really pushing myself. But you learn from that, and you're careful how to pace yourself. This tour with Il Divo has been gruelling at times, but the performances have been phenomenal, the audience is enthusiastic, and I'm thriving on that."

Asked what she has enjoyed most about her success, she says it's simply "the opportunity to do what I love full time. I'm getting to live out a dream. Travelling can be tiresome, but it's also an amazing experience that has introduced me to new cultures, new countries."

She's happy to hear that the Rideau Canal is just steps from the stage door of the NAC. With the cold weather of recent days, you might just find her there, gliding along the ice between concerts.

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