Hayley Westenra Is Living In ‘Paradiso’

The New Zealand-born soprano talks about her new album, “Paradiso,” what it’s like to work with Italian maestro Ennio Morricone, and her ever-growing career.

may sing like an angel yet the 24-year-old songbird comes across as a very down-to-earth person. Singing opera, classical and pop, Westenra’s voice instantly captivates the listener with its purity and nuance as if emanating from deep within the soul itself.

Westenra’s latest album, Paradiso, is the result of a multi-year project with Morricone. During a recent conversation with Pollstar, Westenra talked about her career so far, offering a glimpse of what if feels like to perform before thousands of fans, how she cares for her voice and what she does to prepare for a performance.

Photo: Andrea Lo-Priore

Was it always your ambition to sing opera?

I didn’t have anyone advising me on musical styles. I was about six years old when I started out. My schoolteacher realized I could sing and she gave me a solo in my school play. It was the moment when I realized I really enjoyed singing. From that point on, I was influenced by CDs [and] the music I was learning in choir. I loved Celtic music as well.

When I do concerts, I do a wide range of styles, from an Ave Maria to a Joni Mitchell cover.

Is singing as easy as you make it appear, or do you have to work at it?

It’s pretty natural. I haven’t had many singing lessons or that much coaching. My voice developed naturally. I didn’t really want it to be molded into something and later find out I wasn’t happy with it.

Do you follow any routine or regimen to take care of your voice?

Yeah, I try to do vocal exercises daily. I think the hardest thing is when I’m traveling.

What are some of the things you avoid?

Things like air conditioning. That’s a bit of an issue. I’m a big fan of steam and hot showers. I try to drink lots of water when traveling on a plane. I’ll avoid dairy products on a show day. You don’t want to put too many restrictions on yourself. You have to be disciplined to a certain point, but if you’re too disciplined it backfires and takes the fun out of what you’re doing.

Do you follow any routines on show days?

Generally, I like to arrive the night before, if possible. Then I’ll try to sleep in as much as I can, have a late breakfast. Usually I’ll try to get some fresh air, go for a walk or something, but I won’t do anything too vigorous. One of the key things is not talking too much on a show day. It’s a bit difficult for someone like me. There were times when I was preparing a lot and I would be writing things down on a notepad.

Is there anything you do after a show to come down from the adrenaline rush of singing in front of thousands of people?

It’s quite hard, actually. You need your sleep but you have this adrenaline that keeps you awake for a bit. On an ideal show night, I’m going out with the band and fellow tour people, just having a nice kind of “chill” time with them.

What can you tell us about your new album, Paradiso?

It’s a collaboration with the legendary film composer, Ennio Morricone. About five years ago I was invited to Sicily to meet the maestro, after he heard my voice on an album. Basically, it has taken four years for the collaboration to happen. Last year I went to Rome and discussed this album with him. I thought we might do one track together, but he wanted to do an entire album. It was very exciting. Nothing was “in stone” at that point. We went into the studio and [with] the combination of his music and direction, I really found myself working outside of my comfort zone, which was fantastic. His music is so emotional. The selection of pieces he chose for me, they cover the whole spectrum of emotions. I really had to dig deep for every song to find the right emotion.

When you’re in the studio recording several takes of a song, is there a moment when you know you’ve nailed it, that you’ve gotten the perfect take of the composition?

Generally. With this album, sometimes I’d do a take and I’d be like, “Yeah, that felt right.” And then Ennio would be like, “I’d like you to continue using your voice in that way.” He knew exactly what kind of sound he wanted. I had to change my mindset a little bit. He liked parts of my voice I hadn’t really focused on. He sees a voice as another instrument of the orchestra. That’s how he used my voice on this album. He had a very clear vision for this album.

What was the recording process like? Did you work with the orchestra, or was all the music prerecorded before you stepped into the studio?

We had two days with the orchestra, which is generally what happens in my genre. Ennio would be conducting and I would be in the control room singing into a microphone. But that was for the guide vocal. Then I spent a number of months going back and forth between Rome and London, working in the studio until the recording was completed.

When performing live, are you always singing into a microphone or are there moments when you’re not using amplification and rely only on the acoustics of the room?

Because I’m not a trained opera singer, the only time I wouldn’t [use amplification] would be in a cathedral where the acoustics are perfect. It’s quite nice to do a piece without amplification. It’s quite a different discipline singing un-amplified.

When you’re singing into a microphone, just how loud are you singing? That is, if the sound system were to shut down, would your voice fill the room?

That depends on what song I’m singing. There are some songs I’m really singing out and others where I utilize the amplification. I can sing quite powerfully.

You’ve been performing since childhood. Are there ever moments where you think it’s all a dream?

I think the thing is, I started really young. I’m very quite use to the life, the traveling and performing. I really can’t imagine not doing this. But at the same time I do have moments where I have to pinch myself. It is quite surreal at times.

Photo: Andrea Lo-Priore
Hayley Westenra with with Ennio Morricone.

When are you going to tour the United States?

We don’t have anything at the moment. I really want to come back and do some shows.

You’ve performed for several charitable organizations. Is there a specific charity you would like to talk about?

My No. One charity is “Bikes For Ghana.” It was my first opportunity to give something back in a big way. After the first night I wasn’t so sure about taking on the role because I was quite young and I wasn’t sure whether I’d be up to all the responsibilities. Now I’ve been to Ghana a few times. It’s such rewarding work.

Closing thoughts?

I just want to continue doing what I love. I’m already thinking about the next [album] and I’m sure I’ll be back in the studio next year, if not before then. I’m really looking forward to coming back to the states. It’s been a little while. I think the last time was when I was with Celtic Women at Radio City Music Hall. I love performing and making that magical connection with the audience.

Haley Westenra begins a concert tour of her native New Zealand beginning Nov. 15 with a show at Hamilton’s Claudelands Arena. Other NZ dates include Auckland at The Edge Nov. 16; Wellington, NZ., at the Michael Fowler Centre Nov. 18; Christchurch at CBS Canterbury Arena Nov. 20; Timaru at Theatre Royal Nov. 21 and Invercargill at Civic Theatre Nov. 23.

Westenra begins her United Kingdom tour in late February, playing Gateshead at The Sage Gateshead Feb. 29; Rhyl at the Pavilion Theatre March 1; Northampton at Royal & Derngate March 4; Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall March 5; Southend-On-Sea at Cliffs Pavilion March 7 and the Bournemouth Pavilion Theatre March 8. Visit HayleyWestenra.com for more information.