Opera star a Champion and mentor to many

For many years, aspiring opera singers hoping to pursue an international career have been mentored through the Dame Malvina Major Foundation.

Dame Malvina Major on stage

The international star, ONZ, GNZM, DBE, set up the foundation to help young singers who can work in the emerging artists’ programme with New Zealand Opera.

Dame Malvina has also recently taken on the role of a SuperSeniors Champion, and is one of a number of high-profile New Zealanders who are outstanding advocates of positive ageing.

She is committed to passing on her skills and experience to a younger generation, partly as a result of her own experience.

As a young singer she was tutored in Auckland but it was tough going when living and working overseas.

“I decided when I came back to live in New Zealand that young people needed to have an idea of what it was like overseas and what it was like to be in a young artists’ programme, and also to give them guidance as to where to go.”

Bar set high

The standards are set very high to get into the programme with auditions held for the selected few. Two were chosen in 2015 but nobody made the grade this year.

“We haven’t selected anybody this year,” says Dame Malvina.

“We’ve got three young people we would like to keep an eye on, give them some encouragement to grow a little more vocally and mature a little more before we would put them in an emerging artists’ programme.

“In the emerging artists’ they get to understudy, to learn roles and sometimes to perform roles, especially in touring companies and in concert work, they get to actually perform.”

Dame Malvina Major in blue suit

The opera great is also Professor of Voice at Waikato University.

“I’ve just completed a 12 week program that I designed to target those young people who [have] completely finished their degree, who may or may not have gone overseas to audition for a program, who don’t have anything to do.

“This is designed to give them the opportunity to learn a language, to be on stage, to get stagecraft – to fill the gap while they’re waiting for the next stage, and to give them an idea of what being a young artist is all about.”

Dame Malvina is working towards the university’s music department becoming the conservatorium “that it’s supposed to”.

The opera singer describes herself as driven and believes with talent, comes obligation.

“My mother drummed it into my head that you’re talented, you’ve got to get out there and work, and that record still plays in my head so I guess, in a way, it’s why I’ve worked as hard as I have.”

She says some younger people take a different approach.

“I think they think ‘Well, I’ll either make it or I won’t or I’ll have another career’. I don’t think that obligation to use your talent is there as much as it was.

“One or two young people have that fiery desire to absolutely become something, and the funny thing is that it’s not always the most talented who really get out there and want it, and crave for it, and work for it and make something of themselves.

“Some of the most talented ones, they’re not driven. They fall by the wayside unless you hand them up, really.”


Dame Malvina says building an international career is hard work and, in certain instances, some very talented singers do not stay overseas.

She would like to see those artists be given a chance at a career once back home.

Dame Malvina Major in green dress

“What I’m aiming to do in New Zealand is to try and make sure that we somehow build a community, with the Opera Company’s help, that we can actually bring these young people back and give them a job to do.

“It won’t be full-time employment but with all the other organisations around New Zealand we hope they’ll get enough to live on to be able to stay in this country and work.”

The singer however may well pull back from teaching.

“I feel I’ve done a huge amount up to this point and I’m really over working, if you like.

“I think I could do master classes better than one on one teaching at this stage of my life. I’d like to hand the reins on to a slightly younger person to do the actual teaching.

“I’m probably going to end up working more for my foundation in searching out teachers overseas and searching out the talent around New Zealand.”

Dame Malvina believes a longer lifespan offers more opportunities to contribute.

“I think that anyone who’s lived a very full life, if they just give up, it must be terrible. My father was like that – he just gave up and the next thing we know, he was sitting in his chair and he wasn’t alive any more. He’d gone.

“I think we’ve got to an age now where we’re living longer and we all need to be occupied.

“If it’s driving a car and taking people to cancer treatment or meals on wheels – some sort of charity work. Something with a purpose, something that makes you feel happy, makes you feel good, makes you feel you’ve really helped somebody, and that’s a good feeling.

“I think it’s hugely important that you do keep engaged in your community with whatever your interests are.

“I still feel the need to be involved in the community.”