Musicians in harmony - at a distance

In tune: Conductor Michael Joel with his partner, Madeleine Pierard.
In tune: Conductor Michael Joel with his partner, Madeleine Pierard.

Do not be surprised if you see soprano Madeleine Pierard stealing a quick glance towards the viola section between her performances at this year's Opera in the Park.

The New Zealand-born opera singer's boyfriend, Michael Joel, is a conductor who also plays viola in Orchestra Wellington.

Pierard, a rising international star, is one of the main stars of February 16's Opera in the Park at Nelson's Trafalgar Park.

She has been based in London for several years and was the Jette Parker Young Artist with the Royal Opera in Covent Garden from 2010 to 2012.

While it will be Pierard's time in the limelight during the outdoor concert at Trafalgar Park, Joel had his turn as the star on Saturday when he conducted Mahler's 4th Symphony as part of the Adam Chamber Music Festival. The concert was scheduled for Nelson's Christ Church Cathedral, but a small electrical fire at the cathedral saw it shifted to Nelson School of Music at the 11th hour.

Joel said it was a treat as a conductor to get the rare experience of conducting at a chamber music event, as they usually did not have conductors.

He was looking forward to coming back to Nelson in a couple of weeks to play in the Opera in the Park.

"I really enjoy that the whole orchestra enjoys doing that. We love coming across to Nelson."

He said it was a long but rewarding day and great to play a concert for a relaxed happy crowd as the sun went down.

"It's a lovely atmosphere."

Joel and Pierard have been together for 13 months, although they first met in 2006 when they worked together on an opera in Hawkes' Bay.

Joel was conducting and Pierard was singing a male role in the opera.

Stealing time together had been difficult due to their busy schedules and Pierard living in Europe.

Skype had played a critical part in their relationship.

"For the first three or so months our relationship was primarily on Skype," Pierard said.

"We relied on Skype a lot. If we were at places with no internet access it became quite traumatic."

With Pierard spending a summer in New Zealand for the first time they were making the most of the opportunity for more time together, but work commitments still meant their limited time together was precious.

"Even on Valentines Day we are rehearsing in the evening [for Opera in the Park]. At least he's in the same room."

One of the great bonuses of having a musician as a partner was they understood what the other was going through before a big performance.

They were also able to give each other honest feedback, and Joel said he could ask his girlfriend for ideas he had for arrangements and where singers might find it tricky.

Pierard was also looking forward to Opera in the Park and performing to a crowd not confined by the formalities of a concert hall.

She was also looking forward to singing with her sister - mezzo soprano Anna Pierard - who is also starring in Opera in the Park.

"I love singing those gala concerts as a performer.

"They are low stress as it is usually a repertoire you know so well.

"We just get to really enjoy it as a performer, just get to soak up the atmosphere - of course we feed off the enjoyment of the audience as well."