Casa Diva – reads the sign at the entrance of the Waikato property of Dame Malvina Major. It’s an appropriate welcome to the home of one of New Zealand’s most famous opera singers.
“It’s Italian, meaning ‘Home of the Diva’,” explains Dame Malvina, inviting the Weekly into her sprawling four-bedroom dwelling, where she lives alone, just outside of Hamilton.
And when asked how one should address the legendary performer, she replies with a smile: “Dame Malvina is fine.”
The titles Dame and diva are fitting for a national treasure who has entertained audiences both here and overseas for more than six decades. The 70-year-old has performed for kings and queens, and had the nation in tears when she sang a moving aria at Sir Paul Holmes’ funeral last year.
On the eve of her Diamond Jubilee concerts – a six-show New Zealand tour starting in February to celebrate 60 years of her professional career – Dame Malvina reveals that this will be her swan song.
“When I look back at my career, I think of the words of Frank Sinatra – I did it my way,” she says. “It has never been a conventional career. I’ve had the light shine on me in all directions. This will be the last tour that I do. I think it’s about time I sat down and did nothing.”
Throughout her life, the mother of three has been a patron for many charities, including her own Dame Malvina Major Foundation – which fosters young singing talent and has Hayley Westenra as one of its most successful alumni. But being chosen as the patron of Victim Support New Zealand is one role that Dame Malvina takes very seriously.
She inherited the position when former patron and dear friend Sir Howard Morrison passed away. And for the very first time, Dame Malvina hints at a troubled past of her own and explains why being involved with Victim Support is dear to her heart.
“I have been a victim in my life,” she says. “A lot of people think that someone like myself, who has sung on stage and has travelled to glamorous places, won’t understand. But I do.”
When asked to elaborate, Dame Malvina insists there are some secrets that are hard to reveal, but she admits her life has been just as dramatic as any opera.
“There are a lot of things in my life that I won’t talk about, that I feel are not public property. But if I were to talk about these things, it would make people understand that they are not alone.
“One of the reasons I chose to be a patron of Victim Support is because I felt for a while in my life I was a victim too. These types of things can happen to people from all walks of life. The book that will tell the whole story hasn’t been written yet. If I get around to doing it, it will be an amazing tale.”
Although she’s reluctant to reveal these painful memories in her life, Dame Malvina is candid and happy to talk about her illustrious career. From her humble beginnings to being catapulted into the international spotlight, to giving it all up for life on a Taranaki farm with husband Winston Fleming and their three children, Andrew, (47), Alethea (43) and Lorraine (42). Throughout it all has been that wonderful voice – a gift that Dame Malvina has never taken for granted and has helped her overcome very hard times.
“I’ve sung at some amazing places – the amphitheatres of Jordan, in the Egyptian desert under the moonlight sphinx.
“The highlight of my career is that I had the voice and the gift to do it,“ she says. “Something just happens when you go on stage to sing. It’s like magic.”
Born the seventh of eight children into a musical family in Hamilton, Dame Malvina has been entertaining crowds with her siblings since she was two years old.
“We sang country and western, I yodelled, we performed in shearing sheds. We did lots of crazy things,” she remembers.
She often clashed with her mother, Eva, who pushed a young Malvina into classical music. Many identified her huge voice and she was taught by a succession of Catholic nuns.
At 17, she was sent to Auckland to be tutored by one of the greatest teachers in this country, Sister Mary Leo.
“I didn’t have a choice. My mother got together with the nuns and they all ganged up on me. I wanted to go to Broadway and be the next Julie Andrews.”
Despite her initial misgivings, Dame Malvina formed a close bond with her mentor and reaped the benefits from her training.
Her career took off after she won the prestigious Mobil Song Quest in 1963, beating another Kiwi legend and fellow student of Sister Mary Leo, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Dame Malvina says she has always been friends with Kiri and despite the pair forging a singing career at the same time, there was never any competition between them.
“I’ve never seen Kiri as a rival,” she explains. “Perhaps in my head I thought she was more interested in club singing. We are very close, and whenever we catch up, we always pick up where we left off.”
More wins in prestigious competitions followed, but one of the biggest prizes that came her way was the young Taranaki farmer who won her heart.
Winston Fleming moved to the Waikato to learn the art of cheese making and fell in love with the rising star. The couple married in 1964, and before the decade was over, they were living in England where Dame Malvina was studying music and making waves in the opera circles. Although Dame Malvina was on the verge of a huge international career, she made a huge sacrifice, heeding the call of New Zealand and a life of farming and family with Winston.
“Winston was unsettled in the UK; we lived such separate lives. I was under an enormous amount of stress performing all around the world. We had Andrew born in London and we wanted more children,” she admits. “We both realised we needed a more stable family life and we would have to do that in New Zealand.”
In the early 1970s, the family settled on a Taranaki farm, where they had two more children and the singer became known as the gumboot-wearing diva.
“Being on the farm was easier for us. There was always somebody at the house. We had some very good friends, Nathan and Lorna Young, who became surrogate grandparents to my children.
“The hardest thing for me on the farm was the milking. I would get up at three in the morning. We had to have the milking finished at 7:30am, then I’d get the children to school, do all the housework and try to fit in my singing practice.”
Her idyllic life on the farm changed forever in 1990 when tragedy struck – Winston died suddenly of a heart attack.
He limped back from the milking shed after coughing blood and complaining of chest pain.
His last words were telling his wife that he loved her. After his sudden death, Dame Malvina buried herself in her work to cope with the deep pain.
“I lost my voice during that period, because it was an emotional stage. I had to fight to get it back. I had this ability to block out all the trauma, and just do the job.
“That was a real disaster, because in two years, I really crashed. Your voice is part of your emotional system, and it jammed up. Nothing would come out. I realised I hadn’t dealt with grieving. I hadn’t sat on the beach and cried.”
It was the darkest period in Dame Malvina’s life. She sought counselling and learned breathing techniques to help with her performances.
“Before going on stage, I learned how to sit quietly and meditate. It’s about getting in tune with yourself.”
With her children all grown up and leaving home, Dame Malvina moved on with her life, and rebooted her international career – travelling the world and becoming in-demand again. Although she cherishes all the experiences, she says it comes with its own set of challenges.
“The accolades that you get, are the applause at the end of the opera or concert, and the fact that you know you’ve done it well. But you go home alone. You travel alone. The life of a performer is a very lonely one.”
These days, Dame Malvina has returned to the Waikato after a stint as a Professor of Voice at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.
Traumatised by the earthquakes, in which she lost some of her most valued possessions, she moved to Hamilton to be closer to loved ones and to take up a position as a Senior Fellow in Music at Waikato University.
She adores being around her family, especially her 10 grandchildren and the most recent addition – a great-granddaughter with a name fit for an opera star – Alexa Aria.
“I’m waiting for a singer,” she says. “There’s a lot of music amongst the grandchildren – but not a singer.”
She’s loving her life in her exquisite large home on Waikato farmlands. In the main room is a grand piano and the wall is dotted with photos of family and the many musical and personal accolades she has collected over the years.
And at 70, she still hopes to make it to Broadway and meet Dame Julie Andrews and Whoopi Goldberg.
About to embark on her Diamond Jubilee tour, Dame Malvina reflects on her life.
“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Could I have done it any differently?’ But if it was any different, I wouldn’t have had the life I have today.
“I might have ended up being a lonely old lady with a little dog, living in Paris.”