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Dame Malvina’s triumphant return

The Kiwi opera legend returns for a well-earned encore.
Now 72, the opera diva Dame Malvina, believes her voice had improved with age.

It’s been nearly two years since the Weekly caught up with acclaimed opera singer Dame Malvina Major. Back then, she told us she was retiring from doing any more concerts and her upcoming show would be her last.

After more than 50 years of travelling the world and singing in front of royalty and VIPs, this dame desperately wanted a rest. “This is my swan song,” she told us in February last year. “I’m bowing out.”

But the Kiwi legend is being forced to eat her words. We’re chatting to her just after she has performed in a concert alongside local talent Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Jennifer Ward-Lealand. It seems that even at 72, Dame Malvina can’t resist the stage, and takes her earlier decision to stand down in good humour, with a tried and true Kiwi saying, “I’m retiring from performing. Yeah, right!”

Even now, it’s hard to imagine last month’s concert will be her absolute last.

“If I no longer can perform to the high standard that others expect of me, I think that’s the end point,” Dame Malvina begins. “My family tell me to retire, but the only thing that will make me stop is some catastrophe like a heart attack or some other wretched thing.”

In fact, Dame Malvina says her voice has only improved with age. “The top of the voice is absolutely amazing. I can sing top notes I used to struggle with years ago.”

Opera legend Dame Malvina.

The mother-of-three, who has been performing since she was two, is as busy as ever. Although her performance career has slowed down immensely, she’s been flat out lecturing in music at the University of Waikato and running the Dame Malvina Major Foundation, where she mentors up-and-coming talent.

She moved to her hometown of Hamilton four years ago to take up a part-time lecturing position at Waikato. It’s a job she had to ask for after being let go in her previous post at Christchurch’s University of Canterbury – a position she held for 15 years. Like many others, Dame Malvina was unemployed and desperate to work again.

“It was pretty devastating. I just wanted to be useful and I felt that I still had something to give. So I asked the music department at Waikato if they would be interested in me and now I have this lovely job.”

After raising a family and performing opera at the world’s most prestigious venues, Dame Malvina has settled in Hamilton. But 15 months ago, she decided to move from her spacious home into a townhouse.

Dame Malvina had always lived on big properties – and raised her children on a Taranaki farm with her late husband Winston Fleming. She says being on her own forced the move. “The majority of my life, even when I was raising my children, I had big lawns, I had beautiful big trees and lots and lots of roses that I could pick. My huge gardens were my sanctuary.”

But now she is also adjusting to being contained within a smaller living space.

“I’ve always had two lounges and a music room. Now everything is in one room. The advantage is that the home is not too big for me to look after and I have lovely neighbours.”

One thing Dame Malvina hasn’t scrimped on is her rose garden – or as she calls it, her “pocket handkerchief” garden.

Dame Malvina says spending the last four years in her home- town has been a challenge. “It’s taken me a little while to settle down. It’s not a big city and it hasn’t got the huge cultural events every night of the week – the theatre or the orchestra – that go with larger cities. But it’s a very beautiful city.”

Hamilton is also not too far away from her children and her 10 grandchildren. Her eldest girl Lorraine (44) lives in Taranaki, while daughter Alethea (43) and son Andrew (47) live in Auckland.

But what Dame Malvina adores the most is spending time with her great-grandchildren – two-year-old Alexa Aria (“a name fit for an opera singer”) and Alexa’s brother Arlo (six months).

“Alexa is always taking me to the piano for me to play so she can sing,” Dame Malvina says proudly. “This little girl has the singing gene and she loves to belt out a tune. That sounds very good to me.”

So proud is she of Alexa that when she emails the Weekly a photograph of herself with Alexa and Arlo by the piano, she writes, “Isn’t she gorgeous? Can you imagine her growing up like her great-grandmother into an opera singer, or maybe another Shirley Temple?”

Dame Malvina now wants to write her life story and is also gathering her hundreds of concert gowns together, to one day display in an exhibition.

“Te Papa already has one of my gowns, but I need to make sure that more of them are accessible so people can view and appreciate them.” She stays in shape by walking and swimming three times a week, and also schedules in some “me” time.

“You’ve got to block out time for family and for yourself,” she says. “Keeping busy gives you a purpose. It’s very hard to say, ‘Okay, it’s over now.’”

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