|September 22, 2023 Follow us|
Hitting the high notes
Jack Yan interviews Sophie Morris, the unstoppable Otago soprano who is gaining credits rapidly as her career begins
When it comes to the 2012 Miss Universe New Zealand pageant, the more positive stories came from outside the competition. As with our earlier story about Lani Allanson, who performed mid-week at one of the shows leading up to the final, Sophie Morris was another bright spark whose talent was overlooked in the post-pageant scandal.
Yet this soprano, who flew up from Dunedin to perform at the Miss Universe New Zealand final at the Amora Hotel in Wellington, deserved coverage: at age 19, she has a strong voice, one that belies her youth. In our conversations with Morris prior to the final night, we found her focused and passionate about her work, with a level of maturity beyond her years.
However, her appearance at the show was no fluke. A glance at her curriculum vitæ shows a very extensive list of achievements, from school musicals to operas in the South Island of New Zealand; a search via Duck Duck Go shows Morris’s acceptance into the New Zealand Opera School three years ago. (Then 16, she was the youngest person ever to be invited; most participants are over 20.)
In 2011, she was accepted into the University of Otago’s Classical Voice Performance course, as part of her Bachelor of Music degree, complementing a Bachelor of Commerce in marketing. And to even get there, there is a list of scholarships from the Rotary Club, the Returned Services’ Association, numerous awards at college, and performing arts’ competitions where Morris tended to place first, second or third. (Her CV also mentions a black belt in jiu-jitsu.) A scholarship at the end of 2012 at the Otago competitions marks her most recent victory.
Morris’s career did not start with a childhood dream. ‘At school, in Form I, there was a school musical, The Sound of Music. I went along for fun. I got the part of Gretl and had a lot of fun, then got singing lessons,’ she recalls. ‘I had never thought of singing before Standard Four. Now it’s my number-one priority.’
In fact, it’s such a priority now that Morris admits, ‘You always have music in your head. Sometimes you can’t get to sleep.’
After being set along the musical path at school, Morris participated in the two-yearly musicals at St Hilda’s Collegiate School, as well as performing solos at numerous open days and school services. She remembers each musical: Tiny Tot in The Wizard of Oz in 2006; and Gertrude McFuzz in Seussical, an adaptation of Dr Seuss works, in 2008, where she had her first principal role. For the Taieri Musical Society, Morris performed in Honk!, which she describes as ‘an adult version of The Ugly Duckling—I had to play a seductive cat. I played opposite a tomcat who was about 50—I was 15.’
The following year, she had the role of Sandy in John McGlashan’s production of Grease where she received, in her words, ‘lots of attention due to my leather trousers.’ The same year, she understudied the role of Sharpay in High School Musical at Epiphany Theatre School. In 2010, there was another principal role, as Cinderella in Into the Woods, a Stephen Sondheim musical. The RSA has invited her to perform as a soloist for events in her home town of Dunedin, and Morris has also performed for the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants at a BMW event in 2012.
Morris gave a solo concert in late October as part of her course, performing Mozart, Gasparini, Handel and others, and performed the Messiah in December.
There is a clear break between school and adult roles at the 2008 mark. Morris notes, ‘Schools have to be careful,’ saying that sex and religion were tricky subjects for them to navigate.
Lucire readers might know Morris when she appeared at the opening of ID Dunedin Fashion Week in 2010. Now training in opera, which she says is ‘the music I want to do,’ she participated in the chorus for the Christchurch Southern Opera’s production of Aïda the same year, and understudied the role of Barbarina in Opera Otago’s The Marriage of Figaro. Prior to this, she had not done much opera since her school days.
Now training at university, coached by Isabel Cunningham, Morris says, ‘I did not know what to expect. You need to put a lot of trust in whoever is coaching you. Isabel has been wonderful and I’m loving the entire music department course.’ Prior to Cunningham, Morris was trained by Patricia Payne, an internationally renowned opera singer, who also has a very good record. Cunningham, meanwhile, had coached soprano Anna Leese, a University of Otago alumna who later found herself under contract at Covent Garden, and now resides in Italy. Jonathan Fa’afetai Lemalu, who had won the famous Mobil Song Quest competition, is another singer who went through the University.
Going international might be on the cards for Morris in the years to come. She observes, ‘To have a constant career, people have to go overseas. Some come back after they make it big.’ Morris would not mind giving the Song Quest a go—it’s now sponsored by Toyota division Lexus—‘in a few years.
She also says the Sydney competition—the McDonald’s Aria (yes, that McDonald’s)—is one that performers often aim for, too. ‘It’s money to help, and it’s all about the prestige of winning. Being a finalist opens a lot of doors and opportunities, and they learn a lot,’ she says.
With Leese, Lemalu, and even Martin Snell hailing from Dunedin, there’s something special about the city’s ability to create world-class singers. There are no signs that Morris will be slowing down—and this is bound to be the first of many articles written about her as her name appears more and more regularly in the decade to come. •
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Jack Yan is publisher of Lucire.
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