When internationally acclaimed mezzo soprano Kirstin Chavez took the stage at the GAPA in July, the Gods of fate were smiling. Hers was a long-delayed and much anticipated arrival on Waikato soil, and one she hopes to repeat.
Kirstin took a side-trip on her way home after performances in Japan which were postponed because of the pandemic. As Artist in Residence at the University of Utah, a global partner of the University of Waikato, Kirstin was originally hoping to come to New Zealand in 2021. However the pandemic had other ideas. Luckily, Kirstin is no stranger to late starts, coming to classical music and opera late in the piece.
Raised in Kuala Lumpur from age seven to 17, Kirstin’s first experience of opera wasn’t until she was at university, studying for her bachelor’s degree. “I heard this recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, a German singer, singing a Bach aria, and I thought I had died and awakened in heaven. It was just otherworldly. It really, really affected me.” She then saw her first opera, The Barber of Seville, and “I laughed like a hyena, it was so funny. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this could be good’.”
Originally planning to be a Broadway performer, the journey to opera was not an easy one. “I really had to learn the building blocks very slowly but I think that helps me to be a better teacher.” Kirstin values her time teaching as much as she does performing, but it’s not an easy balance in an industry that can assume teaching means she’s given up performing. Being the Artist in Residence at Utah means she can successfully do both.
Her one-woman Carmen show, Carmen Inside Out, brings her up close and personal with her audience. It’s a move away from the traditional opera performance, and Kirstin says the audience enjoys the difference.
“A lot of people welcome it and it surprises them. They have the opportunity to experience something absolutely in that moment, because when they’re with me and I'm that close to them and I'm singing, they've escaped from all the other things that are bothering them in their lives, and they're just right there with me. We're both having this experience together. It's very powerful.”
Kirstin is optimistic about the future of opera and classical music, having performed an opera recently based on an historical event that happened in Philadelphia in 1984, We shall not be moved.
“It incorporated jazz and hip hop and opera, all sorts of styles mixed up in one piece. There’s a huge dance element which made it visually stunning, and, of course, the story was compelling. So I think, let's see what we can combine. Let's have harmonies and orchestration that really moves people.”
University of Waikato students have benefited from Kirstin’s time at the University, with masterclasses and precious one-on-one time. She says her time teaching is as important as performing, and while it's not easy to combine the two, performing makes her a better teacher, and vice versa.
For her lunchtime recital, Kirstin's performance was a full programme featuring some of her most favorite songs spanning the romantic and modern era. A powerful performer with what has been described as ‘an otherworldly quality to her singing; a mix of the earthy and the ethereal,” it was a performance with something for everyone.
Kirstin has applied for a Fulbright Scholarship which would see her return to Waikato for a semester of teaching and performing. Her fingers are crossed - and she would be welcomed back with open arms.