‘Oua lau e kafo kae lau e lava’ - the Tongan proverb means to ‘stay positive and count your blessings’. Rising opera star and University of Waikato alumnus Filipe Manu did just that when he took out the top prize last month at the Australian Singing Competition, beating out four Australian singers in the final to do so.
While the 24-year-old Bachelor of Music and a Post Graduate Diploma with Distinction graduate is no stranger to accolades and achievement (he was placed second in both the 2016 Lexus Song Quest and NZ Aria and is one of the inaugural singers in the Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation Singers’ Development programme) this one has added significance. It was the first time he has sung publicly after enduring major reconstructive surgery on his left ear to correct the deafness resulting from an undetected and untreated childhood infection.
When we last sat down with the softly-spoken tenor, a few weeks prior to his surgery, he cheekily joked that a Bluetooth-compatible bionic ear would be handy to dictate his operatic lines. The laughter belied obvious nerves that the operation would be successful and he’d be fully recovered by September in time to enrol in the Masters in Opera Studies at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Filipe had good reason to be concerned about the surgery. Only two days after returning from the Australian Singing Competition semi-finals, he was on the operating table and there were unexpected complications.
“The operation was to repair the ear drum that was diseased when I was a baby. Unfortunately, when the surgeon cut the ear drum away she found that two of the three hearing bones had eroded and had to repair them with special cement.”
Only a month later, Filipe had to fly back to Sydney to begin rehearsals for the final.
“It was a quick turnaround and I was very nervous about whether I was even going to be able to make it over for the final.”
Despite the set-backs, Filipe took top honours at Australasia’s richest classical singing competition, a testament to his talent and determination.
The determination he credits to his mum Sesilili who introduced him to classical music and set him on the path to success when she applied for him to attend Auckland boys' private school, Dilworth. Being accepted to Dilworth was a turning point in Filipe's life. His natural singing ability was discovered, by chance, when he joined the choir to avoid a torturous two-block math class. Gradually, as his love for opera was fostered, there came piano and voice lessons that, without the financial aid of the school, would have been beyond reach.
“Mum moved the family from Australia to New Zealand to give us better opportunities. She’s a role model for how to live your life. Working two jobs and raising four boys on her own was hard. If I could live my life the way she has – so dedicated and hardworking – I think I’d accomplish so much.”
Earlier this year, Filipe was awarded a full-fees scholarship, equivalent to NZ $72,000 a year, to undertake a Masters in Opera Studies at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His was one of only 12 places offered internationally to students wanting to further their classical training in the elite two-year post-graduate programme. The $30,000 prize money he just scooped from the Australian competition will go towards his accommodation costs in London and a four-week programme he’ll take during summer break in New York.
With a five-year plan firmly in place, the singer has his sights set on completing his Guildhall studies then entering a young artists’ programme with an opera company in the UK or New York, before making his opera house debut. He says if dedication is matched by hard work, anything is achievable. And would mum be there for his opera house debut? "Of course", he says with tears flowing freely. Filipe laughs, “Maybe Kleenex will have to sponsor me!”