Filipe Manu, a 24-year-old tenor from Auckland, beat off four Aussie singers to win the Australian Singing Competition — Australasia’s richest singing competition for young opera and classical singers. Here he talks to Trish Tupou about how he found opera.
Filipe, congratulations on winning the Australian Singing Competition. I hear you were the only Kiwi in the final, against four Australians. But you actually have an Australian connection, don’t you?
Thank you very much! And, yes, I was born in Australia, in a little town called Armadale in New South Wales. My parents moved there from Fiji, where they’d been studying at the University of the South Pacific.
I’m the youngest of four boys and I’m the only one who was born in Australia, so I can cop a bit of mocking when the All Blacks play the Wallabies. But I’ve spent most of my life here in Auckland, so I definitely consider myself a New Zealander.
I’ve read that your mum Sesilili was a big influence in your life and that she raised you and your brothers on her own. Tell us a bit about her.
Mum was born in Tonga, in Tatakamotonga, which is in Mu’a, the old capital. She’s one of nine children.
We came to New Zealand after she was offered a full scholarship to study here, but that didn’t work out so she had to stop studying and start working. She worked two jobs. In the morning she worked in a clothing factory in Newmarket, and then from late afternoon until early morning she was a kitchen hand at a hotel in the city. She did that for a few years.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Howick Primary. And then, at the end of Year 6, when I was about 10 or 11, my mum applied for me to go to Dilworth School in Epsom. So I spent all of my intermediate and high school years there.
After that, I went to Auckland University and majored in history. But I really wanted to pursue opera, so I auditioned for both Waikato and Victoria and was offered a scholarship for both places. I chose Waikato because the scholarship was more substantial and Dame Malvina Major was there, so that was a massive drawcard. She ended up being my teacher.
Did you ever think you would get into opera singing when you were younger?
No, not at all. There was a whole list of other things I wanted to be.
I was brought up listening to R&B, rap, reggae and whatever was playing on the radio. We didn’t have classical music at home. The closest I came to it was that Hallelujah chorus in church (from Handel’s Messiah), and they sang that in Tongan. My mum used to play church music but I didn’t associate that with classical music, although it was.
It wasn’t until I started singing lessons at high school, and when I went to the Lexus Song Quest the year Aivale Cole won, that I started to get interested in opera.
That was 2009, when I was 16. My teacher told me to go along, but I didn’t realise what the occasion was. I thought it was just a casual little contest. So I turned up to the venue (the Auckland Town Hall) in my rugby gears. It was after a rugby game. And then I saw everyone in their suits and gowns and I felt so ashamed. I was trying to hide away, but my teacher saw me and dragged me inside.
When Aivale sang it was amazing. It was just this full, rich sound — just so beautiful. I remember absolutely falling in love with the music she was creating. I didn’t know what she was singing about but by the end of the night I had started to sit up a bit in my seat and cheer a bit louder.
That night made a big impression on me.
That was when you were at Dilworth, wasn’t it? I understand you were the only one of your brothers to go to Dilworth, which is known for providing that kind of private school education to boys from families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it. How did that happen, and what difference did that make for you?
My mum used to bus past Dilworth every day on her way to work. She did a bit of research and I think she decided that it would give me a lot of opportunities if I could get in.
That’s the thing about Dilworth — it’s a sort of magical place. It gives opportunities and support to boys and their families who otherwise wouldn’t have those chances.
My mum hoped it would change my life — and it certainly did.
I don’t think I’d be the person I am today if I hadn’t had the opportunity to study at Dilworth. It sounds crazy, because it’s a school, but it became a real home for me and the other boys. We all knew how lucky we were. We were given every chance to succeed, and every encouragement to do so.
Dilworth gave me real structure at a really crucial time as a teenager. That’s when you need some strict boundaries, which I may not have adhered to at home. I think that strict structure helped to instil a sense of independence in me from a young age.
And I don’t think I’d be pursuing a career in classical singing if it hadn’t been for Dilworth, because it was such a luxury to be able to have those weekly singing lessons and piano lessons and theory lessons. That’s something my mum would never have been able to afford. And I wouldn’t have wanted her to pay for that over food or rent either.
Dilworth just gave me so much. As well as the singing lessons, I got to go to concerts in Auckland and singing competitions around the North Island.
I hear you only started singing lessons at Dilworth to get out of class.
It was definitely a bonus! At first, when I was really rubbish at singing I definitely saw it more as an escape from class. But the more I learned and the more I realised I really loved it, the more committed I became.
I listened to an interview you did on Radio New Zealand a while back and you talk about how, when you first started singing as a teenager, you wanted to be the first Pacific Islander to make it in opera.
When I first started singing, I thought I would set a goal for myself — and that was me imagining myself as the first Pacific Island opera singer.
But that just shows how much I didn’t know about opera at the time, because there had already been so many other successful Pacific Islanders before me.
Yeah, I had a look at the past winners of the Lexus Song Quest, and the last three winners have all been Pacific Islanders. And in the 2016 Lexus Song Quest — where you came second — three of the four finalists were Pasifika: you, Benson Wilson, who won first prize, and Madison Nonoa. And, of course, there was Jonathan Lemalu, who won it back in 1998. So it seems like there are a lot of successful Pacific Islander opera singers around already.
Is there a community in New Zealand for Pasifika going into opera because of those past successes?
I think there is a growing community. All of the Pacific Islanders who are singing opera all support each other — but the wider opera community is in itself a very supportive community.
I think the more exposure opera gets in our community, and the more brown faces we see, the more interest there’ll be.
One of the things that I’ve really loved so far is doing the Opera in Schools tour with the New Zealand Opera Company. We went to a whole bunch of intermediate and primary schools all across New Zealand and performed opera in a condensed version.
And a few times we went to lower decile schools where the majority of kids were Māori and Pasifika. I guess for the students to see another Pacific Islander on stage singing opera was kind of funny. They would laugh for the first five minutes I was singing, but then, after they got over that, they’d get into it.
So even though it wasn’t performing on a big opera stage, that was one of the coolest moments — being able to show young kids that opera is an accessible thing. It’s not just for the big opera singers with the big tummies. It really can be for anyone.
So were there a few key people who guided you and helped you to get to where you are now?
There’ve been so many people who’ve guided me.
Claire Caldwell was my first singing tutor at Dilworth, and she introduced me to the concepts of classical singing. She does amazing work with the choirs at Dilworth. She was the one who made singing cool — by getting the First XV boys to join the choir.
Other teachers I had were Ian Campbell and Rosie Barnes, both mentors who I continue to sing with, and who’ve seen my very worst and best performances and encouraged me anyway.
And Dame Malvina Major, of course. She’s probably been one of the most influential people in my life. She’s been mentor as well as a teacher, and always given me really good advice.
I’ve been really lucky. Lucky in the opportunities that I’ve had — and, most importantly, in the people who I’ve learned from and been coached by.
What does winning this competition mean for you?
I’m preparing to move to London in September to begin my master’s study at the Guildhall School of Music — and that’s a two-year programme.
So the $30,000 is really going to help, along with all the opportunities it offers. During the summer break, for example, I’ll be doing a four-week intensive training programme in New York. And I’ll get to work with a few different coaches and teachers from all around New York.
Your family must be really proud of you.
Oh, yeah, they are. They’re very proud and very supportive. Two of my brothers, my eldest brother's daughter, and my mum were all in Sydney with me for the final of the Australian Singing Competition and it was a pretty special evening. There were a few tears shed — and a lot of joy.
Filipe Manu holds a Bachelor of Music and a Post Graduate Diploma with Distinction from the University of Waikato where he studied under the direction of Dame Malvina Major. A former Dame Malvina Major Emerging Artist with the New Zealand Opera Company, Filipe has achieved notable success in aria competitions nationally, a recent highlight being in the prestigious Lexus Song Quest (2016) and NZ Aria, in which he was placed second for both.
Alongside balancing a busy performance schedule across the country, Filipe works as a volunteer for the Duffy Foundation “Books in Schools” project and is one of the inaugural singers in the Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation Singers’ Development programme.
In September of this year, Filipe will start his studies at the Guildhall School of Music in London in the Opera Studies stream where he will learn from Yvonne Kenny.
Filipe’s Australian Singing Competition prize package includes:
- The Marianne Mathy Scholarship
- Audition Prize from Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center
- Fine Music 102.5 Recording Session
- Lili Ussher Prize
- Oral History Award
- The Mathy, worth $30,000 AUD
- IVAI New York Scholarship
- Nell Pascall Award
- MOST® Audience Prize
- Opera Australia Prize