Mezzo soprano, Helen Medlyn is the special guest at Opera in the Garden in Whangarei on March 11.

I met Helen at the end of December at Zarbo Café in Auckland. This live-wire diva last visited two years ago when she performed portions of her cabaret, Hell for Leather.  This year, as special guest of Opera North’s Endless Summer Festival presentation, Helen will treat patrons to operatic arias from Mozart and highlights of her most recent cabaret, Raising Hell.

“I love the Whangarei audience,” Helen says.  “They responded really well to my wacky humour and we had a fabulous time together. The Kennaways built a stage in their garden with sound and lights.  The pianos were on the terrace and the singers onstage.  It’s great fun to do.”

Helen’s career took off after she met accompanist Penny Dodd, when Penny was the musical director of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1981. Helen was auditioning for the chorus.

“I was 22, working in an office and wearing this little mini skirt – tweed, with a tweed jacket. The choreographer gave me some tricky moves which the skirt wouldn’t allow, so I whipped it off and auditioned in my petticoat.”

Penny asked her to sing I Don’t Know How to Love Him the way she would like to sing it.

“It felt like a light year while I asked myself what I would do, having only every mimicked before. I decided I would tell the story. I hit the jackpot that day, landing the part of Mary Magadalene and have seen myself as a storyteller ever since.”

In 1992, Janice Webb, now her singing teacher, offered to show Helen that she could be an opera singer.

“If you want to sing classical, you have to work every day. I learnt my songs and practice from Janice and then cleaned up the Auckland Competitions – the NZ Herald Aria, Lieder Prize, Dan Ford Scholarship, and the Mabel Higgenbottom Prize.”

“A month later the Auckland Philharmonia were doing a concert when the lead singer became ill ten days out.  Brett Morris who was conducting and with whom I’d worked at the Mercury Theatre, asked me to step in. I haven’t really stopped working with the orchestra since.  From this, Penny began to arrange music specifically for me, just light music concerts which I did a lot with the Auckland Philharmonia.  When Miguel Harth-Bedoya came along, he got me into the serious stuff.”

Helen practises every day although on the day we met, she had given herself a week off and was feeling like a naughty child.

“I start with 20 minutes of voice exercises which I’ve done for four hundred years so my voice doesn’t get a fright.  And then, if I’m looking at new work, I study the piece, look at the ‘tricksy’ bits and then go over those as an exercise, up a scale, down a scale, then do the whole song in vowel-tracking. That’s taking an ‘o’ or an ‘a’, and singing the entire piece, without words, just to get the flow of the composition. Then I might use just the vowel sounds, no consonants, so still not singing the song but getting it into my voice.

“I do two 40 minute sessions a day. About two hours a day of actual voice practice. Away from formal practice every day I might recite to myself the words of what I’m going to be singing.”

If Helen sings at 8pm, she eats nothing after 3pm.

“I have a big breakfast around nine or ten. Lunch will be soup and salad and potatoes or rice.  I don’t eat any vinegars and only acid-free tomatoes.”

“Many singers, myself included, suffer from reflux because we’re working with the diaphragm, so many of us are on Losec.  We all hate taking it but it seems to be something that goes with the territory.  After the performance is finished I might have cheese and crackers.”

Helen was born in Cornwall in February 1958, the younger of two girls. Her father is Cornish and “me mother’s right north-country, Coronation Street”. They emigrated when Helen was three. Sister, Margaret, is an internationally respected dramatic soprano who travels regularly to perform.

“We come from a hopelessly musical background,” laughs Helen.  “I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t music. I can remember Dad and my mother with Margaret at the piano and we’d do the Verdi Requiem.  I’d have been in my mid-teens.”

Comfortable with performance from the age of eight, Helen recalls how hearing applause changed her life.

“I still get this feeling today, of this amazing knowledge of being thanked for what you have given, along with another feeling of extraordinary unutterable power that no-one can take away from you. Two big reasons why I sing.”