For 21 years young opera singers from across New Zealand have spent two weeks in Whanganui as part of the New Zealand Opera School. Bei Momenti (Beautiful Moments) is the result of two separate residencies at the Opera School that were undertaken by painter Felicity Priest. The portraits in this exhibition serve as windows into these days of exclusive and intensive training as well as providing an intimate view of the school, its teachers, students and some of the most illustrious names in contemporary New Zealand opera.
The artist says of the works: “These live portraiture works were created within the environment of the Opera School. Given full access to all tutorials, master classes and rehearsals, to be a ‘fly on the wall’, I have been privileged to witness in-depth the subtleties, the sensitivities and skill of great teachers at work with a high level of student talent. This setting allows a unique dialogue to emerge between the artist and the performers in action.”
The work that best captures the journey of the Opera School students is the large panoramic narrative drawing on display. This work tracks the students and tutors from movement classes through text analysis and dress rehearsals. The drawing begins in a sketchy monotone, when the students are at the beginning of this demanding process, and ends with bold strokes and bursts of colour as the singers take the stage in their final performances.
Priest’s initial drawings, some of which are on display as a slideshow, exemplify her interest in capturing not only the moments and movements of the participants, but the language and passions of the people involved. In one of the drawings a tiny young woman answers “I might die” when asked what would happen if she doesn’t breathe and in another a gesticulating figure emphasises “This is Wagner man!” It was in these early sketches that Priest caught the personalities, wit and spirit of the individuals featured in the final portraits presented in this exhibition.