Unconventional debut for Song Quest judge

Having her New Zealand husband by her side throughout a musical career in the United States, Nikki Hartliep now returns the favor. She tells Rebecca Fox how she came to live in Dunedin and judge for New Zealand’s top opera competition, the Lexus Song Quest.

Nikki Hartliep is convinced that her voice saved her life.

Raised from obscurity in Alaska, the Japanese-born soprano has won awards and sung at some of America’s greatest opera houses.

However, she had to overcome one big stumbling block – she hated opera.

“I had no idea what an opera singer was. When I first heard it I thought oh my God. It gave me a headache. I don’t was not at all interested.

“I really wanted to be Barbra Streisand or get into musicals.”

It was in high school that she began to realize the power of her big voice, thanks to her choir teacher.

“I was a very insecure tall girl who couldn’t get out of the bathroom because I was so scared of people, but when I started singing and doing solos, I gained confidence. – I was even the prom queen in high school – it’s usually the cheerleader – because of my singing talent My voice saved me.

But when she auditioned for touring bands, she was told she was an opera singer.

“I didn’t like it. I was the least likely person to become an opera singer – I came with no money, no musical training.”

Despite these challenges, Hartliep was “discovered” and left Alaska to continue her training, settling in San Francisco where she studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

“It was courageous. I was very lucky to be framed, taught and guided by the greatest singers, teachers, conductors and producers.”

The soprano went on to win first place in the Merola Opera Program (Schwabacher Prize) and received a prestigious Adler Fellowship for two years. She was also one of the grand final winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1987, which she describes as the closest comparable competition to New Zealand’s Lexus Song Quest.

Having been there as a contestant, she has the greatest empathy for the singers who auditioned for the Lexus Song Quest. As one of two preliminary judges, Hartliep traveled to major hubs including Dunedin to find the 10 semi-finalists for this weekend’s gig.

“It was a crazy, wonderful opportunity. People were saying they didn’t know I was here. I loved every audition because I, as a singer, could relate to what they were going through, so I supported all of them.”

Although she often tells her students that there are many singers who perform in opera houses around the world who have never won a competition, she admits that it can be useful for a singer’s career, especially contests such as the Song Quest.

“I’m aware of the money it takes, the support, the mentoring, the advice – whatever comes with it.”

Unaware of each contestant’s vocal journey, she says she just had to focus on how they were performing that day, at that time. She was not looking for perfection, but the energy of the performer, the way they brought the music to life and “in her heart”, their ability to move her and their career potential.

“I was not disappointed. The quality was very high. It was not easy to narrow it down to 10 semi-finalists. It was very good.”

Of the semi-finalists they selected, two had Dunedin connections – Sarah Hubbard and Ridge Ponini – although Hartliep was unaware of this at the time.

Hubbard has often sung with Opera Otago and received the Colin McDonald Memorial Award in 2019 and 2021 for musical excellence at the University of Otago, while Ponini, a Cook Islander, earned his honors degree in music at the University of Otago, under the tuition of Judy Bellingham and also sang for Opera Otago.

In 2017, Ridge was named Most Promising Singer and received the Judges’ Choice Award as part of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation’s Aria Award. He also placed second in the same competition in 2018.

“Both had some really great days where everything lined up for both of them that day. They both brought everything for this audition.”

Hartliep will attend the Song Quest concert this weekend, where the 10 semi-finalists will perform over two nights, culminating in Chief Judge Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ announcement of the five finalists for the weekend’s grand gala finale. next end.

Winning the Metropolitan Opera Grand Final prepared Hartliep for a 20-year career singing major roles such as the lead role in Sweat Angelica with the Canadian Opera Company, Ellen Orford in Pierre Grimes with the Philadelphia Opera Company, Mimi in The bohemian with Opera Colorado, Amelia in A ball in Maschera with Nevada Opera, and Alice Ford in Falstaff in Japan.

But it’s in the title role of Lady Butterfly which Hartliep is best known for and most identifies with as a Japanese American.

Her Japanese mother gave Hartliep up for adoption to her American family – her father was an air traffic controller who traveled for work.

“It’s also the story of my real life. All these years I thought I was half Italian and half Japanese like Pinkerton in Lady Butterfly, but I realized that he was only singing in Italian. He never said he was Italian and so when my DNA came back [I found out] I’m not Italian, my father is from Great Britain.”

That hasn’t stopped her from performing as Cio-Cio-San all over North America and with international opera houses including San Francisco Opera, Canadian Opera, New York Opera , Teatro Teresa Carreno (Caracas, Venezuela), Seattle Opera, Dublin Grand Opera, Minnesota Opera, Atlanta Opera, Florentine Opera and Austin Lyric Opera.

She credits Mirella Freni, an Italian lyric soprano, for teaching her the role and French opera singer Regine Crespin for teaching her French.

“I was just amazed by them. You can’t imagine being in a room with them and not being ‘can I have your autograph’, they didn’t take selfies at the time, but I would have liked to take a selfie.”

During this time, Hartliep often took master classes and gradually began to realize that she really enjoyed teaching.

“It became more and more about opportunities even though I never imagined being a teacher.”

When the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York asked her if she would like to join their program as an assistant voice teacher (part-time) (2003-14), as they wanted to have a young singer as their teacher, she took advantage of it. She also held a position on the performance faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (2003-05).

After some health issues, Hartliep decided to “reinvent” herself and “pay it forward” by opening her own vocal studio.

“All the information that I have gathered over the years, I pass on to young singers.”

She describes the people she taught in the United States as not necessarily “the stars”, but graduates who wanted to break into the industry.

“I took the people that no one paid attention to and the singers who could get the information they needed and they ran with them. They started showing up in contests and winning contests and doing programs. for young artists.

Teaching is a “wonderful responsibility” and she derives immense satisfaction from seeing singers enter artist programs and succeed.

Along the way, Hartliep (67) married a New Zealander who was very supportive of his career in the United States, but who for some years has wanted to return to New Zealand.

“We visited his family every two years because his whole family is here except for one brother. Now he’s home with his family, it’s wonderful for him.”

When a job opportunity presented itself in New Zealand for him, they made the decision to move to Dunedin – a town Hartliep had only visited briefly once six years ago – and settled down at St Clair.

“I thought it was beautiful. It was hard to get us out of the States, because I had a full studio of about 45 singers, mostly semi-professional and professional, so we were used to using Internet, although I don’t teach all the singers I haven’t heard live.”

Then Covid-19 hit, and since many of her students were going to have to learn online, they asked to continue learning from her.

“It was quite a challenge with the time zones, sometimes 6am and the last one I teach is 11pm. It depends on what time zone they are in because there are three time zones in the United States. I have a student who has been stuck in China for a while.”

She has taken on a few New Zealand students but is mainly focused on her US-based students, although she stepped in at the University of Otago for a week when lecturer Anna Leese was ill.

“I loved working with the young singers there. It was a wonderful experience. I enjoyed my time there.”

New Zealand singers graduating from schools in New York also sought out Hartliep to work with.

“People love them, love them. They represent so well in all the big houses and look what they do for young singers when they come back.”

Hartliep’s experience means she has some advice for young singers. “Work, work, work, work.”

Now is the time to learn as much music and different styles as possible while students still have time, because once their careers take off they often become too busy to continue learning.

“Get soul in your sound, beauty in tone.”

However, the key for singers is to realize that this is a learning process that cannot be rushed, she says.

“You can’t rush. It’s your vocal journey, you can’t compare yourself to anyone else. You’ll know when you’re ready. It takes time, you can’t rush.”

It is also important for singers to know that this is a very difficult career path to take, as only 1% of music graduates in the United States get a job in music.

“You have to figure out what’s unique to you and when you have it, sell it. But you can’t sell it until you’re in love with your own voice, you have to tell a story, but the story has to be personal How do you make a person in the audience forget that they had a shitty day, pay a lot of money for childcare and walk away crying? That’s what it’s all about.”

Hartliep does not fail to tread the boards herself, especially the demands of the job – the worry of catching a cold. This often meant she only saw the hotel, venue, and airport when she was traveling.

“Your business is your voice. It’s not like another instrument, you can’t put it in a closet and walk away.”

She’s settled into life in New Zealand, although she admits learning to parallel park on the “wrong side” of the road is still a major challenge. But she also doesn’t miss the two-hour train ride from her home in Princeton, New Jersey, to New York to teach for eight hours and then return home.

“I don’t miss it.”

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