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Dame Malvina Major: my sad farewell

The celebrated opera singer reveals why she is leaving her beloved Christchurch behind

Dame Malvina Major

Watching as her precious belongings are boxed up and taken away, Dame Malvina Major admits it is with an extremely heavy heart that she is leaving Christchurch after many happy years there.

“When I saw my piano being taken yesterday, I felt full of emotion,” says the opera great, whose beautiful Canterbury homestead, Waianiwa, is due to be auctioned in a few weeks’ time.

“My heart and soul is in the place and I thought I’d be here forever, but things change.” For the star soprano, the earthquakes have brought about a radical rethinking of her plans, resulting in the decision to resettle in her hometown of Hamilton.

Her career prospects as Professor of Voice at the University of Canterbury have been altered by changes that the disaster has brought about. “The university was trying to start up a big new music school, but the earthquakes put paid to that,” explains Malvina (69).

“They had to concentrate on their biggest departments like engineering, science and law, so music went on the back burner. I realised I was too highly qualified for what they needed.”

It will be another sad loss for the city whose famous resident has long been an integral part of the arts and culture community. The diva, who has performed on Europe’s greatest stages, says it was overwhelming to sing at the earthquake memorial concert in March last year.

“The emotion was extremely raw on that day because we hadn’t been allowed to see the destruction in the central city at that point,” says Malvina. “They played a video at the ceremony showing the damage and I suddenly felt myself welling up.

I said to one of the other singers sitting beside me, ‘Don’t look. We can’t afford to see this because we have to perform.’ So we kept our eyes to the ground and there was total silence all around us. “We chose our songs to have a message of hope,” says the star, who gave a breathtaking rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. “It was very special to have Prince William there – he’s such a lovely person.”

Personally, Malvina counts herself lucky to have come off relatively unscathed by the tragedy. “The most traumatic thing for me was that the big cabinet I stored all my china in collapsed and everything was broken.

Each time I went overseas I used to buy a piece of Ladró or Royal Doulton china that looked like the characters I’d played in operas and they were all ruined. “But, of course, they’re only things at the end of the day.

I had friends who were trapped in the cathedral during the February quake and my PA lost her home the September before. There are a lot of people suffering a lot worse than I am. You suffer with them because it’s such a terrible thing to be happening.”

With her future in the shaky city curtailed, Malvina has accepted a position as a teacher and ambassador at the University of Waikato, where she holds an honorary doctorate. It will also bring her closer to her three children and their families, who are all based in the North Island.

It does, however, mean being homeless for a little while. “I have a friend I’ve known since I was eight and she has a very big house and is now a widow,

so I’ll stay with her until I find something.

There’s somewhere I can put my piano, so I can practise and get on with my life. I don’t know if I’ll ever find another house with big high ceilings for singing in and a place to give concerts for friends.”

And though it will no longer be her home, Malvina feels hopeful about Christchurch’s future. “The shakes keep coming and you wish they’d stop so everyone can get on with building their lives again, but eventually they will. In the so much new development and lots of new places that are looking gorgeous.

“It will never be the same, but what can come out of this can be absolutely wonderful. It’s still amazing to be able to look across to the snowcapped mountains and that doesn’t change.”

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