Opera singer Marlena Devoe lends her remarkable voice to La Bohème

Opera singer Marlena Devoe, who stars in La Bohème starting mid-September, is one to watch.

One Sunday, a few weeks ago, New Zealand-born Samoan opera star Marlena Devoe had the kind of moment that dreams are made of. As understudy for lead-soprano Mary Dunleavy in the Verdi opera Falstaff at the Garsington Opera in England, she never expected to see the stage. But then Dunleavy took ill.

“It was bizarre because that never happens,” says Devoe. “But they pulled me in and said, ‘Mary has allergies and can’t sing.’” Devoe hadn’t worked with the conductor. “I wish I’d had more time singing with the others but you take those chances when you get them.”

In September, 31-year-old Devoe makes her debut with New Zealand Opera, as Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème. She’s happy for an excuse to come home — by which she means both New Zealand and Samoa. “I go home every time I’m back in New Zealand. This time, I’m going to my grandfather’s 80th. They always ask me to sing at church and they’re always so surprised that I don’t need to use a mic.”

This will be the fourth time she’s performed in La Bohème. The first was when she was a primary-school student, when Dame Malvina Major took the role of Musetta. A teacher had overheard Devoe’s remarkable voice and suggested her mum get her lessons; shortly afterwards, she was accepted into the Opera New Zealand children’s chorus. “It was a great first opera experience as a child. I loved the costuming and being on stage. It gave me the bug and I haven’t stopped since.”

After university, Devoe trained at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, then the Wales International Academy of Voice in Cardiff, where seven of the 15 students in her class were New Zealanders, including the Pati brothers Peni and Amitai and their cousin Moses Mackay — aka popera sensations Sol3 Mio. “It’s nice to know that there are a few of us [Samoan-New Zealanders] around the world, all chasing the same dream.”

Her heroines include Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Maria Callas and the Romanian singer Virginia Zeani, with whom she’s trained. At 92 years old, Zeani “still has a perfect top E-flat, which is the high note of the bel canto repertoire. She sings in the old Italian style of singing and I aspire to sing that way.”

Devoe’s already blessed with a light, floating vocal quality, in which notes begin softly then gradually blossom. “My old teacher used to say I have quite a plangent quality to my voice, so all the tragic heroines suit me.” She’s played Mimì twice, for the Mediterranean Opera Studio and Festival in Sicily and the Lyric Opera in Dublin, where she was praised by the Irish Independent for portraying “the fragile figure of the consumptive heroine with positive conviction. Her clear soprano range may be delicately expressive but it also shows a depth of purpose when need be.”

Devoe loves performing Mimì. “She’s an incredible character. It’s not vocally difficult but it’s emotionally exhausting. She goes through a range of emotions throughout the opera. It’s everything a soprano would want in a role.” Some directors she’s worked with have implied that Mimì was a prostitute. “She’s more innocent than that to me.”

It can be intimidating to tackle such familiar music. “So many audience members would have heard Pavarotti singing ‘Che gelida manina’ or Mirella Freni singing ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’, and they’ll come into the opera with the expectation of those great voices. So you have to make it your own. You experiment with phrasing, you experiment with colours. You can’t make it like theirs or you’ll just fail!”

Devoe is delighted that so many women (director, set designer, costume designer and lighting designer) are involved with the production, and that the cast is almost all Kiwi. “That’s quite special. It’s just so encouraging when the national company hires you.” 

La Bohème, September 13-23, Aotea Centre, Auckland.