Shaun Dixon is a bit hoarse. "It's laryngopharyngeal reflux," explains the New Zealand-born tenor, sipping on a ginger tonic.
"It's because I've been working really hard at rehearsals, as well as teaching – it's full-on and non-stop."
A bit like Shaun himself. The spirited protégé of opera great Luciano Pavarotti is back on home turf for just a few weeks, to perform the role of Alfredo in Festival Opera's La Traviata – set to be a standout event at Napier's Art Deco Festival.
For Shaun, it's an opportunity to reconnect with the country that raised him and to embark on something new.
That something new is teaching – because as part of his short tenure in Hawke's Bay, he's working with the kids of Project Prima Volta (PPV), the immersive opera experience offered to 30 talented youth from around the region annually.
"I get very little opportunity to pass on my knowledge," laments the 41-year-old.
"And I have a wealth of it that needs to come out! PPV has blown my mind. It's like the programme has uncovered some new genetic breed that can really sing!"
Shaun's own trajectory from Tokoroa schoolboy to opera star is a fascinating one.
Identified as a singing talent from a young age, "because I was the loudest at assembly", he got his first break aged 10 − a lesson with a Swiss voice teacher visiting New Zealand.
"This was a guy who trained the soloists for the Vienna Boys' Choir... Afterwards, the teacher asked me to come to Europe to train. But Mum couldn't agree to that. I was just too young."
Luckily for Shaun, the 1990s were just around the corner – and with them, The Three Tenors.
Shaun found himself captivated by Pavarotti. But though he yearned to be just like his idol, Shaun's voice hadn't yet broken.
"It wasn't all bad," he recalls. "I got teased, but I also got to stand with the girls during choir!"
Then, when his voice finally broke, aged 17, Shaun went straight into baritone.
"I wasn't having it!" he laughs. "In my mind, being a tenor was my future. So I willed it. I made it happen. And I trained, every opportunity I could, until I was."
At 19, Shaun won the Viewers' Choice prize on Kiwi TV talent show Showcase – a fast-track ticket to corporate gigs and shows with the likes of Sir Howard Morrison. But finding his place in the opera world was not so easy and Shaun says the opera "snobs" of that time refused to take him seriously.
"Then one day I read an interview with Pavarotti, who was about to perform here, and it said that he always loved to hear fresh talent when visiting a new country."
That was all the impetus the then 22-year-old Shaun needed.
"I wrote a letter to Pavarotti, telling him, 'You are the greatest tenor of the 20th century. And I'm going to be the greatest of the 21st. We have to meet.'"
It worked. After his New Zealand concert, Shaun received a summons from the Maestro himself – and an opportunity to sing for him.
"Everything was shaking – legs, arms, even my stomach. I sang badly. But Pavarotti told me, 'It's okay,' and asked me to try a particular song I didn't know well but which I − confidently and loudly − 'la-la-la'ed' my way through. Pavarotti laughed and laughed!
"That's when a rapport was formed. I asked him to recommend me a teacher, and he said, 'Just wait' and said he'd find me one."
That teacher turned out to be Luciano Pavarotti himself. Shaun was again summoned, this time to Italy, moving into Pavarotti's summer home in Pesaro.
For six months, there were trips on his private jet around the world, pressing the flesh with other international artists, as well as long hours of voice training.
It sounds idyllic, but Shaun says in reality it was "prison".
"I had no freedom and his teaching style was aggressive, unrelenting. But I viewed it as like going to Mount Fuji and training with a samurai warrior. You just had to accept that he was the master.
"I went home for Christmas that year," Shaun continues, "and fell in love."
That was with Tania Brand, Shaun's first wife. "When Pavarotti asked me back, I told him I was unsure. He wasn't happy and the relationship between us fell apart."
These days, Shaun lives in Cardiff with his second wife, singer Stephanie Edwards.
After further training at the Royal College of Music in London, he's spent the past 12 years building a busy career.
Opera now allows him to perform with companies around Europe and the globe.
"It's a roller-coaster," he admits, "but no life is easy."
Now, he and Stephanie would love to start a family, but with competing schedules keeping them apart more often than not, he worries it will be a challenge.
Which is where teaching appeals.
"I just find it so exciting," he grins. "It's a work in progress as to when and how – we have our family, but if I became a voice teacher, it would be a lot easier."
And he'll give thanks to the kids of PPV – a number of whom will take roles in La Traviata –for his start in teaching.
"One thing I'll certainly pass on to those kids is this: Pavarotti told me once, 'Your career will not be based on your talent. It will be based on your persistence.' He told me to be fully focused and never give up. I've always kept that with me."
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