Two Minutes with James Harrison

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The Dame Malvina Major Foundation Fellow talks Carmen, family and music education

Baritone James Harrison is this year’s New Zealand Opera Dame Malvina Major Foundation Fellow.  He’s also one of our principals in Carmen, playing the role of Moralès/Le Dancaïre.   Here, he talks to us about life in London, Carmen and the little things he misses when he’s away from New Zealand.

How did you get into singing?

I've always been a singer of sorts and a performer by nature. I went missing from the supermarket at age 3 and when my Mum finally found me I was singing along with a busker who asked if I could stay for a bit longer as he was making a lot more money with me there! I sang in school choirs and eventually national choirs. My first real operatic experience was in the chorus of Turandot with what was then Opera New Zealand and I haven't looked back since. 

Your wife’s also a singer; how and when did you meet?

Bronwyn and I met singing in the New Zealand Youth Choir, like a number of couples! She's an Aucklander and I'm a Christchurch boy but we ended up at Auckland University together a few years after meeting in the choir and one thing led to another. She's now a music teacher and head of a big performing arts department, speaking at conferences around Europe. Less singing, but still very much a musician. 

How do you combine family life with an international career?

Every artist has to make the right decision for them and their loved ones, for me it was an easy choice. When my family came along I slowed my career down, or at least made different choices about which projects I took on so that I could be very present at home. I've done a few more "boutique" performances in some smaller and less typical venues, in an effort to be able to come home most nights. Now that the kids are a little bigger I'm spending a little more time working away from London, such as a very rewarding season in Norway recently and now a very happy return to New Zealand Opera.

Away from the stage, what keeps you busy? 

My kids keep me busy! But alongside that I really enjoy teaching and doing education work. I have private singing students, a lot of younger people exploring lots of different genres, and some fellow opera singers in the early stages of their careers. I really love the process of helping singers discover their own voices, finding what makes them unique and special. I also do quite a lot of education outreach work, going into school and hospitals and other institutions and using music as a way of facilitating conversations about all sorts of life issues. I've just done an amazing project with the Alzheimer's Society in London looking at how childhood songs stay very fresh in people's memories and can bring real comfort for those recently diagnosed with memory issues. 

What and when was your last role for New Zealand Opera?

I think my last role was Valentin in a very moving production of Faust. The wonderful Jared Holt sang the role in Wellington and I took over in Auckland. It was a lot of fun to share the role with an old school friend. 

Rehearsals for Carmen started last week – how are they going?

This is going to be a very exciting season! Lots of people may come to the show knowing lots of the tunes, but this score is full of hidden treasures and Maestro Pasqualetti is cleaning away some of the clichés to bring them back into focus. Our director, Lindy Hume, is doing the same; this will be a story about very real people living through a very real tragedy. 

You’re based in London; what do you miss about New Zealand while you’re away?

How tasty the food is! And how amazing the coffee is! I'm very fortunate to get back reasonably regularly to see my family who are still here and it will be great to sing for all of them, but I'm also really enjoying the flavours. There's also a way of being that I think comes from being a Pacific Island, a sense of community and family that I think comes from the tangata whenua and our Island neighbours which I never realise I miss as much as I do until I come home. 

What influence has Dame Malvina had on your career?

Like so many singers I owe Dame Malvina a huge debt. She was very present at the point where I really decided that this was my vocation; guiding me as a singer and as a person, helping my financially through her foundation, and believing in me. She came to London while I was at the Royal College of Music and that was a real shot in the arm as well, to have someone advocate for you and encourage you so warmly and with real expertise was very important. 

How will the Fellowship help your career?

This fellowship will allow me to explore some new repertoire and look at the right next steps for me. It's a very timely investment in working out what's right now and also what's next as I grow and develop, something singers continue to do through their whole careers. I'm very grateful to have the chance to take some time and some great advice.