Westenra sings a variety of styles in several languages.
Acclaimed soprano Hayley Westenra, who has mesmerized audiences across continents with her clear, innocent voice, will appear with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra at the Orpheum Theater on Dec. 18 and 19.
Westenra, 27, hails from Christchurch, New Zealand. Despite her tender age, she has published an autobiography, is a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, and her Wikipedia page is as long as those of stars twice her age.
Westenra sang for Madison audiences at the WCO's Concerts on the Square in July 2004. "We were the first orchestra in North America to feature her," says conductor Andrew Sewell. "The concert swelled to be one of our largest Concerts on the Square audiences. People drove from as far away as Idaho to attend." At the time, her international debut album, Pure, was climbing the charts; it would eventually sell about two million copies worldwide.
Sewell says that the Orpheum Theatre is an ideal venue for this week's concerts, partly because of its space for cabaret seating. It also has a bar where patrons can get beverages to enjoy during the performance. "It is a different concert experience from that of the Capitol Theater [in the Overture Center where the WCO performs its indoor concert series]," says Sewell. "We are marketing the performance as a 'Concert on the Square' at the Orpheum."
The WCO will beef up its usual good sonics for the concert with a small rhythm section. Westenra's music director, Tim Evans, also a New Zealander, will play piano.
The program will feature a host of Christmas favorites and other selections. Among the highlights are "Silent Night," "The Christmas Song," "I Dreamed a Dream" (Les Misérables), "Amália Por Amor" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
Powerhouse singers like Elvis Presley and Whitney Houston have given memorable performances of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." A little of life's anguish seeps through their interpretations of the gospel-inspired classic, but in Westenra's hands, it is hopeful and angelic.
In 2011, Westenra and Italian film composer Ennio Morricone worked together in Rome to put together a collection of songs. Some of these were written especially for Westenra while others were the composer's famous film compositions sung to Westenra's lyrics.
The result was the album Paradiso. One of its tracks, "Amália Por Amor," is a tribute to the Portuguese fado singer Amália Rodrigues. You will hear the darker beauty in Westenra's voice when she sings this soulful memorial.
Besides a voice that makes you stop and listen, Westenra has a contemporary view of music that embraces many styles and considers them equally relevant. As a result, even though her concerts are usually billed as classical or classical crossover, she sings a wide array of repertoire in several languages.
In her autobiography, Hayley Westenra: In her Own Voice, with Darren Henley, she writes: "I simply want to make music that connects with real people, no matter who they are or where they come from."
[Editor's note: This article was corrected to note that two million copies of Pure were sold worldwide.]