A big thank you for the South Seas' latest opera star

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 August, 2004, 12:00am

Like fellow New Zealander Jonah Lomu, Jonathan Lemalu is a big man. Where beefy Lomu would knock them flat on the rugby pitch, burly Lemalu has been slaying them in the aisles of the world's concert halls - as he did recently at London's Royal Albert Hall in the Nation's Favourite Prom.

Off stage, the statuesque Lemalu could easily be mistaken for a sportsman (and one of his earlier singing experiences was chanting the haka on the rugby fields of his home town, Dunedin). Music was in the family, with his father known as the Pacific Island Elvis.

Samoan culture is deeply religious and it was in a church choir that Lemalu's remarkable voice was first noticed.

Lemalu has credited being a BBC 'New Generation Artist' as 'an incredible experience. At first you're just so happy to be part of it all - but pretty soon you're hanging on for dear life. There's just so much new repertoire you have to learn, it's almost a case of sensory overload. But I love it.'

For the first half of the Proms he sang Mozart arias from Don Giovanni and Figaro. The youthful 'Prommers' who stand throughout the concerts gave the charming 28-year-old baritone a rousing cheer.

'The first time I sang at the Proms was on the first night in 2001,' Lemalu says. 'For a young student still at college it was pretty cool.'

Some of Lemalu's arias at this year's Proms were distinctly devilish: in the second half he sang from Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele and Gounod's Faust. Last year, his appearances were decidedly supernatural when he sang the ghost of Samuel in Handel's Saul and the ghost of Hector in Berlioz's The Trojans. He sang Hector from high in the organ loft. 'I don't know whether it was because of my singing or just for sound balance, but I sort of felt I'd found my niche up there, looking down on this stadium full of people. There's something about the Albert Hall. It has such mystique.'

Lemalu's favourite singer is Bryn Terfel, and comparisons have already been made between the two. Modest Lemalu thinks that such comparisons are premature, but admits Terfel has the vocal prowess he hopes to achieve. He describes Terfel's voice as being 'seamless from top to bottom'.

Lemalu's first name is Fa'afetai, Samoan for thank you - and that's just what the audience was saying as it cheered this bright new South Seas opera star.