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Hayley's 'Odyssey' brings her to Gainesville

It's easy to forget New Zealand soprano and international superstar Hayley Westenra is still a teen.

The photos that adorn her new disc, "Odyssey," clearly shed the novelty of a fresh-faced 15-year-old whose 2003 break-through classical-crossover CD "Pure" included "In Trutina" from the opera "Carmina Burana." She's 18 now, and the new disc reflects a young woman whose much-ballyhooed voice can embrace Joni Mitchell just as easily as Franz Schubert.

This is a singer who has performed for Queen Elizabeth II, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In her native New Zealand, "Pure" is the biggest-selling album of all time. It has sold about 2 million copies on both sides of the pond.

Westenra - pronounced West-IN-ra - is fresh off a tour with fellow crossover sensations IL DIVO and is bound for the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts Wednesday to caress Gainesville with a voice The New York Times has likened to that of an angel.

She is glamorous. Critically adored. Not to mention a UNICEF ambassador.

But, when the hype subsides and the royals have left the building, she's still a chatty 18-year-old who craves hometown gossip, misses her family, loves the American sitcom "Friends" and adores her iPod.

"I'm very attached to it," she said of her iPod last week. "I thought I had lost it on the first day of my tour, and I was just completely and utterly devastated."

So, what's on the iPod of a teen classical-crossover star?

"There's some Jill Scott. I love a lot of soul music. I listened to the whole Beatles collection on the plane the other day. One minute, I'll feel like something classical - a bit of Mozart or Stravinsky - and the next minute I really feel like some Aretha Franklin."

These days, plane rides are about the only chances for quality iPod time. The three years between "Pure" and Odyssey" have been "a blur," she said from London, a bit tired and vowing to do her best to talk "coherently" after days light on sleeping.

"It's been tough because I've been away from my family and friends quite a bit, you know? Last year, I spent about a month total at home," she said. "We have these two-week breaks where I have the opportunity to go home, but then by the time I get home and recover from the flight, it's time to go again. And there's always things that keep cropping up; one minute you have a space and then the next minute it's been sold.

"But then again, I've really been enjoying the ride, you know, despite the kind-of exhausting periods. I still will enjoy going out on stage and performing in front of a crowd and just making music; I think it's the music that keeps me going."

The overwhelming success of "Pure" launched a roller-coaster ride for the young woman from Christchurch, New Zealand.

"At the moment, I do have to admit I feel a little bit spaced out from all the traveling," she said. "What I try to do is call my family every couple of days. Making sure I'm in contact with my family, that's what keeps me grounded and keeps me sane.

"I'll have them fill me in on all the gossip, fill me in on what's happening at home. It makes me miss them more. I just talk to my brother about what he's doing: 'Oh yeah, I'm making this computer game.' You know, just being brought back into that world again. They'd be like, 'Oh yes, we just went out for fish and chips with the family.' And I'll want to be there.

"But, then again, it's so incredible to be doing what I'm doing, and I just want to make the most of it."

And that's where "Odyssey" comes in.
It is a more varied disc than "Pure." The song selection was the result of a carefully calculated "mission" to reflect a young woman eager to showcase professional growth.

"For 'Odyssey,' I was looking for songs that I really connected to, both melodically and also lyrically," she said. "That became quite important to me, actually, because - I don't know - I was getting older, I was getting more experience ... I have more to say now."

One of the standout tracks on "Odyssey" is Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." (also recorded by Judy Collins) She first heard the song about three years ago and has since amassed a full Mitchell collection: "I was just blown away by the music and her voice."

"And 'Both Sides Now' really jumped out at me," she said. "It's just a beautifully written song. I'm just in awe of her lyrics. Very deep. And I find that I can read into the lyrics differently each time I perform the song."

Michael Blachly, director of University of Florida Performing Arts, first heard Westenra on an NPR program a few years back and has been trying to book her into the Phillips Center ever since.

"Such an incredible voice, such a wonderful range of material," Blachly said. "She's the real deal."

source: gainsville sun
credit: Dave Schlenker can be reached at 374-5045 or scene@gvillesun.com.
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