Dr Te Oti Rakena examines the recurring question – why do Pacific nations produce such great voices?

Two former students from our voice department, Samson Setu and Manase Latu, have won places on the prestigious New York Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. They’ll be there for two years, and the first New Zealanders to be accepted into the training programme.

They certainly stood out as outstanding students, and outstanding singers and performers, but their success has prompted the recurring question: why do Pacific nations produce such great voices? When asked this by Pākehā/Palagi I tread carefully, because in this context, I often deal with racist pushback from the culture of power, often diluting the significance of Pacific Island singers’ success in our field by writing it off as “natural ability”, that they have an unfair advantage genetically.

In these moments I argue that if we give a Stradivarius violin to Stranger X on the street they are unlikely to make a sound we would pay to hear. What makes the difference is rigorous training in the instrument, implicit artistry, respect for the art object and the ability to carry this into the public domain and be inspired and excited by the audience.

But it is true that some communities value singing more than others; in church contexts, social contexts, at community gatherings, which deliberately create opportunities to gather and sing in order to sustain languages and traditions.

This normalises performing for young singers, often provides strong vocal modelling and develops the capacity to speak the musical language. Yet this happens in many cultures. I began teaching voice in Austin, Texas, and I had great singers that came out of the Southern Baptist choir tradition, gospel backgrounds, Tejano groups and high school choir programmes.

I would also like to acknowledge the choir programmes we have in New Zealand in producing wonderful singers, many of whom are Pacific Island. The competition ‘Big Sing’ which is a secondary school choral phenomenon has made choir singing a competitive team sport that engages many singers across many schools from diverse deciles. In saying this, the higher decile schools that are well-resourced are overwhelmingly represented in the finals of these events, and as winners.

There are differences in the background of our students, and those from Pacific and Māori background have a specific cultural background, that not only encourages singing but places a strong value on family and community.

In the vocal programme we have a kaupapa that acknowledges this, with an approach that connects music, health and wellbeing, focusing less on the musical object and more on social participation, and the wellbeing of the individual learner.

Usually the student has the same voice teacher for the entire length of study. This is a modified version of the master-apprentice model. The closest model to this in the university context, when you consider the duration of the relationship, is postgraduate supervision at the PhD level. The difference between PhD supervision of mature students and studio learning is however quite significant.

The students usually enter the studio environment directly from high school. They have to acquire autonomous learning skills while exploring the freedom of university life, while the adolescent brain is still developing and reorganising to achieve this autonomy and learning to cope emotionally with the core teaching practice of critique. More importantly for singing, physiologically their vocal instruments are still growing.

The teaching – the learning relationship between the voice teacher and the student in a normal conservatory model of studio learning, is mostly given over to the development of technical skills related to the instrument, the rigorous training of those skills.

Our teaching approach is different, and grew out of a University’s Te Ako Aotearoa Teaching Learning Research Initiative study, Success for All (Rakena, Airini & Brown, 2016), which explored Māori and Pacific Island student success in studio learning. In that project Māori and Pacific Island students fully participated in the studio, and achieved on a par or better than their non-MPI student peers by mobilising a community of learners beyond the studio, a community that encompassed family, friends and peers.

The information gathered in that study has informed my studio teaching and the practices in the vocal department for over 10 years. We have consciously worked with our students to create a social environment that is also a community of learners. They socialise together, sing together, practice together, study together, help each other through personal issues and family problems and share their ups and downs.

I am a part of this community of learners and I witness their testimonies in studio, at dinner, over coffee, in rehearsal, over social media and in performance and in turn they witness mine. The acknowledgement of the teacher and learner as subjects, erodes some of the hierarchical issues that occur in a critique learning environment, and builds trust, which is vital for a relationship that is longitudinal by university standards.

Samson and Manase are entering one of the world’s largest and most famous Opera Houses – due to the pandemic travel restrictions they have started classes by Zoom. With this comes an implicit understanding that Opera lacks diversity on stage and in the audience. The productions are deeply entrenched in the historic practices and conventions of Europe has traditionally been the preserve of people from more privileged backgrounds. It is rare for these large Opera houses to challenge audiences expectations and cast beyond the conventional, however it is crucial that they do so. The Met recently released a statement in response to the Black Lives Matters Movement stating there is no room for racism in the Arts. If the Met acts on this, then I have great hope for the future of Opera, and the full participation of our young brown singers entering the profession.

Dr Te Oti Rakena is from the School of Music at the University of Auckland.

Leave a comment