‘We’re humbled by the normality’ – Opera star Jonathan Lemalu grateful to be back on Kiwi shores
By Alice Lolohea
The last time I spoke with Grammy-winning opera singer Jonathan Lemalu, it was mid-November last year and the city of London had entered its second lockdown. With his gigs and performances postponed or cancelled, and his classes shifting to a digital medium he was yet to get comfortable with, Lemalu was incredibly honest about adjusting to these fast-paced changes.
“It’s been brutal,” the Guildhall School teacher professed.
“There’s no other way for it; whether it’s mentally, financially. Your identity as a person, as a man, as a breadwinner, as a father, as a husband…” says Lemalu.
“You can get comfortable in the fact that you’ve got this lovely work and it allows you to do lovely things. Then you take that away and that is a really weird thing for me.”
This year however, relaxing into an armchair from his Dunedin living room, Lemalu appears much more at ease as he considers his recent return to Kiwi shores.
“I feel slightly nourished,” he enthuses.
“You feel a real blessing in being able to get back, because so many can’t and so many are unable to.”
I remind him of our last conversation, when he mentioned he hadn’t been to the cinema since January last year. “Since being back in New Zealand, have you been able to catch any films at the movies?” I ask.
“I’ve been able to catch up with films, but not the ones that I wanted,” he laughs.
“I took the kids to Raya and the Last Dragon, and we walked into the theatre almost cautiously like, ‘What do we do now?'”
“It felt very weird, it felt very luxurious – like a lot of New Zealand to be honest. We’re just really humbled by the normality.”
In the country to see his parents, particularly his mother, Tasi, who is ill at the moment, Lemalu has been keeping extremely busy.
The singer launched his national tour over the weekend, treating classical musical lovers to an intimate litany of operatic and contemporary pieces. Lemalu will also be holding a number of accompanying Masterclasses, a highly coveted opportunity for budding singers to learn from one of Aotearoa’s finest singers.
“I think in a lot of places there’s not a lot of touring going on, but that doesn’t seem to have affected New Zealand, because there’s so many great artists living here,” Lemalu says.
“And I guess through my Masterclass, what I find is that there’s already an exciting undercurrent of the next generations.”
After spending months teaching his classes online, Lemalu is keen to see and hear a new crop of Kiwi talent up close.
“It’s actually the reason I think we kind of got this whole Masterclass up and running,” Lemalu says thoughtfully.
“I was doing one of 1 to 5 in the morning so I could catch my students in the UK, and I was thinking ‘Man, it would be really nice to do this in the normal hours.’ Then suddenly thought, ‘Well, I have time and I have the contacts,’ so that became the organic way in which the Masterclass came together.”
“I’m really excited about it, and it’s probably the first time in maybe seven or eight months that I’ve worked with singers live. I just like to work with people live.”
While his return to Aotearoa soil is brief, Lemalu believes in taking the opportunity to teach and perform, “because you never know what might come from them”.
“I spoke to a friend in a cafe one morning. I dropped my daughter off at nursery, had a coffee and spoke to my friend, and when I told them what I was doing, they burst into tears,” says Lemalu.
“It’s just not something that we’re used to right now. It feels like the history channel, when you’re talking about things like going to the movies, or going out for dinner.”
“I feel a certain responsibility to make the most of my time here and really embrace just how lucky I am.”
For tickets and concert times, click here to be a part of ‘An Audience with Jonathan Lemalu’