January 2005

From sport to opera via piracy


I was sitting in the little entrance foyer of the Opera Centre waiting to do an interview.

A minute or two later the entrance doors slid open, and a rugged-looking man carrying a bicycle over his shoulder strode in.

One would have thought if one didn't know any better that he had come to deliver a parcel or collect some copy. One wouldn't have tagged him as an opera singer. However I did know better.

He deposited his bike and with a big grin came over and shook my hand. I had heard quite a lot and read a little about this remarkable operatic bass, whom I was looking forward to hearing as the Comte Des Grieux in Manon when it opened in a couple of nights.

Appearances were not all that deceptive. Jud Arthur has a sporting record that made him a celebrity in his native New Zealand and took him overseas too, long before he had thought of an operatic career.

Scan the entire opera world and I doubt if you would discover a bass or in fact any opera singer with a life story like his. At school he was a sporting hero. "Is it true you were in the first team of every sport?" He shakes his head sadly but his eyes are laughing: "I was in the first team in softball, table tennis, badminton, tennis, athletics, swimming, soccer and rugby but ..."

Here I interrupt him: "What could possibly be left?" "Hockey! I was very frustrated but I just couldn't master those sticks." Leaving school he became a top rugby union player in New Zealand and for that you have to be tough.

He reached the top as a basketball player and represented his country in show jumping.

"My mother was a single mother. She was a very enthusiastic and skilled horsewoman and I was only two when she bought me a pony.

"I don't know how she managed because we were very poor. I was able to make use of my riding skills when I left school. I kept myself, earning money by show jumping, breaking in horses, riding in competitions and giving riding lessons.

"Then I was chosen by Otago, my rugby province, to represent it in a tour of Australia and the result of that was I went to Italy in 1984 to play rugby professionally for the first time, for two Italian teams. I played in Mirano near Venice. I was away for three years."

Fascinated by all this, I almost forgot I was talking to an opera singer. He is so friendly and outgoing that I think this husky, vigorous and athletic singer could easily join the long line of Kiwis and Australians who are bestriding the music theatre stages of the world, without forswearing the opera stage.

By the time we had breezed through his sporting life, I finally ask him, though not for the first time: "How did you leap off the horses' backs on to the theatre stage?"

"Well yes, that came past the post long after rugby and horses and I had no thought of becoming a singer. I was a late starter. At school I had sung in the school choir and was always given the lead role in concerts.

"I had a few lessons and learnt a few songs I could trot out at appropriate and often somewhat well-oiled occasions. My speciality was Ol' Man River. This was when I'd left school. "I began to take singing more seriously. I'd had two knee reconstructions and I thought: ‘Well, this life as an athlete isn't going to last forever. I'd better look at singing as a possible career’."

He laughs and I join, amused at this casual approach to stage three in the life of Jud Arthur.

"So I had a few more lessons and then by one of those unplanned things that push you in a career direction, my teacher told me that the Dunedin Opera was looking for some extra pirates for its forthcoming production of The Pirates of Penzance." If ever there was a role was tailor-made for the debut of this swashbuckling, athletic singer it was this.

"I enjoyed that so much that I said to myself: ‘It seems that it's a life that will suit me very well.’ So I auditioned for a lot of little companies around New Zealand and because I had a natural bass and was fluent in Italian I was usually hired. Gradually the roles got bigger and the companies got bigger. By now I knew I had a voice. I sang Nourabad in Auckland and Wellington, Ramfis in Wellington, Le Comte des Grieux in Wellington and Auckland, Zuniga in an arena production, Lodovico in Otello, Angelotti, Sparafucile, Don Alhambra, and then Javert in Les Misérables for the Dunedin Operatic Society. That was in 1994. What a role! What a musical!"

He began to win awards very early in his operatic career. In 1994 he was chosen for the National Opera Society Scholarship at the NZ Singing School and was the winner of the Cleveland and Southland scholarships. In 1997 he won the Lockwood Aria in Rotorua.

"I virtually sang whatever was offering. I was beginning to get roles in Australia. I also sang as a soloist in concerts all over New Zealand and I still go back to do that. One visit which I enjoy immensely and is a source of great pride is to sing the national anthem at major sporting events.

"I've sung for All Blacks matches against South Africa and Ireland, for the New Zealand rugby league team playing Australia and for the defence of the America's Cup."

For Opera Australia he has sung Angelotti and the Speaker in Die Zauberflöte, Colline and the Mikado. He sang Frère Laurent in Roméo et Juliette for the State Opera of South Australia and Basilio for West Australian Opera and was the bass soloist in The Creation with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

More recent roles have included Varlaam for New Zealand Opera - "It was a good role for me because it made use of my athletic abilities" - and Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Sarastro and the Nightwatchman in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for OA.

"I haven't sung a lot of Wagner," he says reflectively, "but as my voice matures I hope I'll get more Wagnerian roles.

"I've just sung another role for OA - I'm now on a yearly contract with the company which is very satisfying - Ben in the new Australian opera Madeline Lee.

"It was a great thrill to be in the cast of an opera that nobody had sung before us. It was exciting and moving and very real. It was a ground-breaking experience that makes me hope we'll have other new operas in the future like that."

I mention Batavia and Bruce Martin. "Bruce Martin!" Arthur's eyes light up. "He must be the inspiration, the goal for every younger bass. He is certainly mine. He's a fine actor too and has a great stage presence."

The thought occurs to me: "At what age does a bass voice develop?" "I had a baby bass voice when I was 15, but I feel it's only starting to settle."

This year he is singing Chelio in The Love for Three Oranges, Angelotti, Colline and the Duke of Verona in Roméo et Juliette for OA.

"You still go back to sing in New Zealand from time to time. Do you find that a challenge now that you are part of the facilities and lavish productions at OA?" "I enjoy both. Considering how little funding they get in New Zealand the standard there is good. I'd really like to sing overseas one day, but I'm in no hurry for that."

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