Performing since he was four years old and all over the world, Chalium Poppy is arguably one of the most experienced classical musicians in the country.

With a Welsh dragon tattooed over his heart, a love of swimming in winter and a husband who works in fashion, the mould was clearly broken when Chalium was born.

WORDS JENNY RUDD PHOTOS SHAWN ROLTON

PERFORMING SINCE HE WAS FOUR YEARS OLD AND ALL OVER THE WORLD, CHALIUM POPPY IS ARGUABLY ONE OF THE MOST EXPERIENCED CLASSICAL MUSICIANS IN THE COUNTRY.

WITH A WELSH DRAGON TATTOOED OVER HIS HEART, A LOVE OF SWIMMING IN WINTER AND A HUSBAND WHO WORKS IN FASHION, THE MOULD WAS CLEARLY BROKEN WHEN CHALIUM WAS BORN.

My voice broke at 12 and I thought my life had ended. I felt like a bad angel about to be cast out of heaven. When the time came for me to be dismissed from the choir, we had a big party. Every boy got one. We called it our puberty party. It was hard saying goodbye to the other boys and I cried for weeks.

My parents put me into a local school but that didn’t last long. I hated it and let everyone know. One week, my mother was called to the school every day. I don’t really want to say what I did but I was very naughty. I was ‘moved’ to another school.

I flourished there. They had a great music program led by talented teachers. They allowed me to play the organ in chapel for services now and then, and help conduct the choir. The chapel became my second home.

INTERNATIONAL STAR
One teacher sent a recording of my singing to a university in Austria. Someone came over to hear me sing live. In a few weeks I received an offer of a full scholarship to study music in Vienna. Although my father loved classical music, my parents absolutely did not support it as a career choice. Knowing they would have forbidden me to go, I ran away from home and have never been back since.

My seven years spent studying at the Academy in Vienna were amazing. I worked with tutors and academics who were leading authorities in their field of music, travelled, studied and performed in Italy, France, Germany and the Czech Republic.

My grandmother had been a contralto soloist of considerable talent, although her piano skills were terrible; a bit music hall-like. It was she who diagnosed my musical abilities and that of my two brothers early on. I had the voice of an angel, she was convinced. My brothers didn’t fare so well. She declared my elder brother tone deaf and advised him never to sing in public.

At four years old, I auditioned successfully to become a choirboy at Oxford Cathedral, where my family lived in the UK. The training and education of choirboys is an ancient tradition. Our lives are centred around music-making in the context of worshipping God; education, both academic and physical, is really quite secondary to that. Oxford Cathedral is an exceptional place – much of Harry Potter was filmed in its beautiful halls and quads.

All 23 choirboys do absolutely everything together, and we were busy every minute of the day with a continuous round of rehearsals, services and studies. From the beginning, the principles of respect and kindness were instilled in us by the choirmaster. We followed his guidance above all others.

One year, Christopher Hogwood, the great conductor, brought his orchestra The Academy of Ancient Music to record Messiah while we sang. I didn’t appreciate his brilliance and knowledge at the time, I just kept thinking what cavernous nostrils he had.

TEA PARTY
Besides our vocal studies, we were all required to study an instrument. I chose the piano, having taken private lessons since I was five. My father woke me early one Saturday and took me to the cathedral. The organ was undergoing maintenance and repair – they had opened the enormous wind chest up and you could see all the pipes and mechanisms. We sat inside the wind chest having a sandwich and a cup of tea whilst my father explained how it worked. I decided to learn to play the organ too, even though my feet didn’t yet reach the pedals.

After completing my Masters (in Protestant Church Music), I moved to Canada and worked full time as a musician: organist and choirmaster in the cathedral, as well as singer, conductor, teacher, lecturer. I was often asked to conduct Gilbert & Sullivan operas. They thought that being English I was automatically an expert.

Although exciting professionally, this was also a very lonely time. I worked very hard. The life of performer was beginning to lose its lustre and appeal as I got older.

I am a creature of habit. On Sundays, after the morning services at the cathedral, I would walk to my favourite Irish pub for lunch and a pint or two of Guinness, and then return to the cathedral in the afternoon for Evensong. One Sunday, something happened that would change my life dramatically and for the better. I met Michael.

LOVE
There was a young chap sitting at the bar enjoying a drink and chatting casually with the barkeep. He had the most striking red hair and a wonderful smile. I was electrified. I summoned all my courage and asked him to join me for lunch. He was a New Zealander travelling through Canada on his o/e, an avid snowboarder exploring Canada’s world-famous slopes.

I wasn’t sure how he would respond to my chosen career path – being a church music specialist isn’t very glamorous. To my eternal surprise, he asked to come to Evensong in the cathedral that afternoon.

I fell deeply in love with Michael that day. Two weeks later I asked him to marry me. We have just celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary. I couldn’t ask for a better, more loving and supportive partner in life.

As Michael was only in Canada on a holiday visa and I was estranged from my own family, we decided to move to Mount Maunganui. We arrived on the first day of winter 2009. I knew very little about the country.

We watched the sun rise over the water on the day we arrived. Surfers and swimmers were all heading towards the water. I thought to myself – if this is New Zealand on the first official day of winter, what a wonderful place to live!

MUSIC, FAMILY, NEW ZEALAND

Aside from performing and conducting locally, I’ve worked in Auckland, Gisborne, Napier, Whakatane, Kerikeri, Dunedin, Rotorua, Hamilton – all over the place.

In Canada, I performed primarily at a professional level. Here in New Zealand, there simply aren’t the choirs and orchestras to provide much work at that level. My objective is to make music at the very highest level that I can – whether I’m singing Messiah in a barn in Kerikeri or works of Bach in the Auckland Town Hall with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. What’s important for me as a musician is to have the same level of musical integrity no matter what the circumstances.

I’ve been put up in fantastic hotels in Auckland when I perform, or slept quite comfortably on a pull-out couch in someone’s living room. That is what makes the life of a musician in New Zealand different from anywhere else I’ve been.

When I’m not music-making, we usually like to spend our time close to home. We are both home bodies and foodies. Michael is an exceptional cook so we are rarely alone at dinner time. Just over a year ago, we adopted Paddington. He keeps us on our toes. If I have a gap in my schedule, we pack up and take Paddington on an adventure somewhere. Of course we live right at the beach, so I like to get into the water as much as I can – Paddington too.

Chalium is the Musical Director of Scholars Pro Musica, a Tauranga based chamber choir of exceptional talent.

scholarspromusica.org.nz