Lyric tenor Manase Latu. (Photo: RNZ / Darlo Acosta.)

Manase Latu wasn’t known in his family as an especially flash singer. His mum and three sisters were the serious singers in the family, and, as a kid, Manase was often shushed. Not so much these days. Manase’s just finished a tour with New Zealand Opera, where he played the lead role in Le comte Ory. Here he talks to Dale about how he found his voice.

 

How long are you back in New Zealand for, bro? I know you’re travelling the world singing in all the biggest opera houses in the globe!

I’ve been back home since the end of April. I’m currently in Christchurch finishing off the last leg of a tour with New Zealand Opera. So another couple weeks from now, I’ll be back off to New York. It’s been good fun coming back home and eating all the meat pies.

Of course! It’s lovely to have a kōrero with you, Manase. Can we start with your names and the villages that you whakapapa to in Tonga?

My full name is Manase Tapuaki Mei Langi Latu. My father and I share the same name, and we were named after my great-grandfather. He was a doctor during World War Two.

On my dad’s side, we come from Tongatapu in Kolomotu’a. My mother is Mele Latu, who is originally from Vava’u in Leimatua. But her family reside in Fasi in Nukualofa, in the capital.

I was born in New Zealand, but shortly after I was born, we moved back to Tonga and I got to grow up there. I spent my childhood in Kolomotu’a where my father’s family home is, right up until I was around 9 or 10. Then we came back to New Zealand. So, I got the best of both worlds.

I’m the youngest in the family and I have three older sisters. They tried to turn me into the fourth sister, but I persevered. So yeah, Tongan heritage, New Zealand-born Tongan.

Manase and his mother Mele Suipi Latu. (Supplied)

Where did you go to school?

In Tonga, I went to a primary school at Maamaloa. When I came to New Zealand, I went to high school at Saint Kentigern College in Pakuranga.

On a singing scholarship?

No. At first my parents broke their backs to get me there. My mum was teaching. She teaches English at Tamaki College. I wanted to go to there because there were a lot of Poly boys, and some of my cousins had come through Tamaki. But my mum and dad wanted to do their best by me, and they sent me to Saint Kent’s. Towards the end of it, I got a scholarship, which helped out with school fees and stuff.

Tēnā koe, Manase. When did you realise you had a gift? I think I read that somebody pulled you out of line at the tuck shop.

I was 15 or 16 at the time? And yeah, I was at the tuck shop. I liked to go for the chicken panini. They were doing auditions for the choir, and I thought, “Oh, sweet as, I’ll give it a try.”

So I tried it, and the conductor auditioned me and said: “We have choir practice next week. I’ll see you there.”

I’d grown up singing at church and all of that stuff. And music being such a big component of our culture, I was always surrounded by it. I had an ear for it. But that was where it really started for me, joining the high school choir.

What song did you sing in your audition?

The conductor made me do some scales and then I sang the first part of the national anthem. And that was that.

How did you find your optimum voice? Did you have to experiment a bit with registers — bass, baritone, tenor?

At first, I had an okay voice and I was part of the choir, but then I started taking lessons with the conductor, Lachlan Craig. And that’s where we unearthed this raw and I guess natural voice, which until that time was undiscovered, because I was never known to have a good voice.

My mum is an awesome singer, and my sisters would sing as a trio. And when I was younger, I used to stand behind them and hum along, but I would always be flat. I would always be told to shush. Now the tides have turned, but that’s where I came from.

As the years went by and we got closer to my graduating year at St Kent’s, Lachlan said: “You know, this is something that you could take up at uni. There’s a career pathway in this.”

One of the biggest catalysts that got me into pursuing it further past secondary school was seeing Sol3 Mio. These Poly boys looked like me. I was thinking that they could be my brothers or my cousins, and they sang amazingly. I kind of went, “Oh, man, maybe I can try this too!”

“I’m the youngest in the family and I have three older sisters. They tried to turn me into the fourth sister, but I persevered.” Manase with his parents Mele and Manase senior, and his sisters Anahina Latu, Akanesi Moala and Manusiu Latu. (Photo supplied)

I had a lovely kōrero with Moses recently. And I see you guys are both singing in this New Zealand Opera tour that you’re on now. It makes us very proud to know that those who’ve grown up in our humble suburbs of Māngere and Ōtāhuhu are being so highly regarded on the international stage. Could you talk to me about whether you think that the power and the magic of your singing comes from your heart or from your voice?

I guess a bit both. On a technical level, when you’re singing, you know it’s not just the voice, it’s a full body experience. You need your entire body to help you support your singing, especially in an artform like opera where there’s no amplification and you’re in a big opera house, and you’re having to project over 40 to 60 instruments that are in the orchestra.

But singing is also a mental game and it’s a heart game, and there’s a lot of courage that goes into that. When you’re rehearsing, and during your studio time, you figure out all the ins and outs, and what you need to do to prepare for that high note, or what you need to do when you’re descending a scale, when you’re going down low.

But when you’re in a performance, that kind of goes behind the curtain, and you focus on telling the story. You focus on the heart of your character — on what you’re trying to portray to your audience.

Manase (right) in his first leading role, as Count Ory in New Zealand Opera’s production of Le comte Ory. Pictured with Moses Mackay. (Photo: Lewis Ferris)

What did you learn from your university experience? And who would you say are the mentors who helped you to understand just how good you could become?

Before being introduced to western musical notation, I had a Tongan understanding of how we notate music, which is done with numbers in relation to the scale. We start from three, which is the octave, and we go up to nine. I grew up with that system in my head and in my ear, and, looking at it now, that was a huge advantage for me. Because when I was able to make a connection between Tongan music notation and western music notation, it was a lot easier for me to be able to look at what’s on the page, and be like, “Okay, yeah, that’s in D-major. Start on the fifth.”

I wasn’t amazing at university, but I got by. I passed my papers, and we had recitals and technicals and all of that stuff. But yeah, being able to look at a music score and know what the parts are doing, know how it goes, know how to play it out, is really helpful when you’re by yourself. Because most of the time, you’re isolated, away from family, away from people who can help you do that.

You know what, mate? You’re the first person who’s ever mentioned that Tongan notation. I was completely unaware of it.

Yeah, it’s so handy. As you know, in Tonga there’s a massive brass band community, and a lot of the churches have their own brass band. When we first came to Auckland, we went to the Ellerslie Tongan Methodist church, which had its own brass band. There were people there who could read both the Tongan notation and the western music notation. I was aware of it, but when I delved into music myself and was able to make that connection, it was really helpful and it made so much sense.

A lot of your mahi is solo. We’ve spoken a little about the harmonic choral sound that is so prevalent throughout the Pacific. How does it feel when you sometimes strike notes alongside your contemporaries or your cousins — when you hit a block of harmony that is so pure and clean. How does that feel for you?

I’ll always have a special place for choral music and ensemble singing, because that’s what I grew up singing with my cousins. Solo singing is very different. You shouldn’t be blending with other singers, you have to stick out, you have to project over so many obstacles.

But with ensemble singing, there’s a sense of camaraderie and a sense of community that I really miss now, because as an opera singer, you don’t really have that. You have moments when you sing as a group, but you’re not trying to blend. You have your line, they have their line. When I come back home, I love to have a jam with the cuzzies.

I’m also part of a group called The Shades. We formed up in university. We were the only brown boys in university, and we gravitated towards the back of our voice class. There were four of us: two tenors, one baritone and one bass baritone, which was perfect for a quartet. We met towards the end of 2015 and started jamming, and we got very close because we were the only brown boys in class.

Someone heard us singing “Ave Maria” and said: “Oh, could you guys come and sing at the School of Music ball at university?” That was our first gig, and then in 2016, we started getting more and more work. Now we’ve toured around New Zealand, we’ve gone to the Cook Islands, we’ve gone to Sāmoa, gone to Tonga. Last year, we did a six-week tour in Croatia.

So, yeah, ensemble singing and choir singing are precious to me, and The Shades is my outlet when I’m not singing by myself.

What were some of the feelings you had when you moved to London? It must have been challenging and inspiring at the same time.

You hear about these places on the news and see them in movies, but you don’t quite expect to reach those places by yourself, or to live there. So it was a very surreal experience for me going to London. Hearing the accent everywhere was pretty buzzy.

But it was a good time, because I went over with a good friend of mine, Samson Setu, who is New Zealand Sāmoan. We got into a similar programme at the Royal College of Music, right before Covid. And though we were separated from our family and friends, we were extremely lucky because we had a bit of a community there. There was Samson, there was Filipe Manu, who is also a tenor of Tongan descent, and Benson Wilson. I felt blessed to have them around.

At high school, Manase started taking singing lessons from the conductor of the school choir. “And that’s where we unearthed this raw and, I guess, natural voice, which until that time was undiscovered because I was never known to have a good voice.”

What about singing at the Met? How did you feel when you stepped into this whare?

The Met is just the beast. It’s arguably the best opera house in the world. If you had said to me when I was still in high school that I was gonna sing at the Met in a decade’s time or less, I would’ve laughed at you.

But, you know, it really comes down to trusting your journey and knowing that someone out there has made a plan for you. Growing up in church and in a church household, I’m a big believer in that. That was something that we really put our faith and trust in.

And though I was doing very small roles, one-liners here and there, just being there in this place that has so much rich history, where the world’s best singers have sung, was a surreal experience. Even better was that Samson and I were able to do that together. But it was just amazing, and sometimes you have to pinch yourself to check that it’s not a dream.

New York in itself is a different beast to London. London is very spread out, very wide, but New York is tall. Everyone’s living on top of each other. And New York is like a country within a country. It’s very different to the rest of America. But I love New York, and I’m based there for the time being.

One buzzy thing about singing at the Met is that it’s such a big theatre you think you’ll be just singing into a void and get nothing back from the room. But, really, the sound is very live and you can do whatever you want in that room because it’s just an amazing space to sing in.

In a scene from NZ Opera’s Le comte Ory, with Moses Mackay (right). (Photo: Lewis Ferris)

You’re currently singing in, am I pronouncing this right, “Le comte Ory”?

It’s a French opera. And trust me, I still get the pronunciation wrong as well. French is very different to our languages in the Pacific. We don’t have those nasal vowels or any of that stuff.

Le comte Ory translates as the Count Ory, which is the name of my character. So this is my first time having a title role and being centre stage. I’m incredibly lucky that New Zealand Opera gave me this opportunity — and it was very special to receive the Ryman Healthcare Dame Malvina Major Foundation Mina Foley Award, which supported me to return home and do this in my own backyard. This is a role in a production that I’ll remember for a long time.

And the great thing about it is that it’s a comic opera, which I love. When you think about opera, you think of all these big tragedies, people dying and people getting killed and infidelity and all that stuff. But with this comic opera, it’s a lot lighter. You can feel free to have a laugh because that’s what you’re supposed to do with this type of opera.

The production is great because they Kiwi-fy it, and although the original is set a long time ago during the time of the Crusades, they’ve given it a facelift and set it in a very contemporary New Zealand setting. So there’s a lot of things in the production that are very relatable to us Kiwis, one being rugby, which we really dive into in the production. It’s just great fun and good to be back home singing for a New Zealand audience again.

Going forward, what are the opportunities for you? Are there things you feel you could get better at?

In this kind of artform, it’s very subjective and there is no perfection. There’s only growth and doing things in a different way, or doing a different interpretation of something.

There are so many things I can improve. I’m still at the very beginning of my career and the beginning of my journey. I have so many pages in my book to fill, and this is just the beginning of one chapter.

I’m looking forward to the first Tongan opera written by Manase Latu, because there’s no shortage of comic material or tragic material!

Plenty of both!

Manase and Ella were married at St Matthews in the City, Auckland, in January this year. (Photo supplied)

I often end these conversations by asking people what else they do apart from their main mahi. What do you do to keep enthused with life?

I think it’s important to always have something else that you love to do, because too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. So for me, I love to watch Netflix, and everywhere I go, I bring my PlayStation with me. When I’m not rehearsing or on stage, you’ll find me playing some FIFA or some 2K basketball or the Call of Duty, something like that to take my mind off being on stage. And I love to catch up with friends and go out for a feed.

If I’m with my wife, then I’m forced to go out for walks and go tramping and things like that. But she’s not here in New Zealand now. So for the time being, it’s my other wife, my PlayStation 4.

Call of Duty, here we come! It’s been a pleasure having a kōrero with you today.

 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

E-Tangata, 2024

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