Dame Kiri takes young New Zealand baritone under her extraordinary operatic wings

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa with her protege Phillip Rhodes. Photo / Supplied

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Māori operatic baritone Phillip Rhodes considers himself lucky.

Despite being bounced around as a child from foster home to foster home with his five sisters, he landed with a whānau who would provide all the love and stability he would or could ever need.

Born in Flaxmere to an abusive alcoholic Māori father and Pakeha mother, the whānau struggled financially and emotionally.

When Rhodes’ dad died – he was only 9 – the children were taken into social welfare care. Like many whānau, they could easily have gone down a rabbit hole and been additions to the crime conveyor belt.

Fortunately, they were taken in by Pam and Henare Ngaera O’Keefe – strong Māori community leaders who had rehabilitated prison inmates and taken in more than 200 foster children during 30 years. Henare O’Keefe was a Hastings councillor, JP and singer and his wife Pam O’Keefe was known as the “mother of Flaxmere”.

Rhodes’ love of music was inspired by his adopted dad O’Keefe.

With a stable home life, Rhodes flourished and began entering competitions. In 2007, he won the Lexus Song Quest. Unbeknown to Rhodes, Dame Kiri had been monitoring his career in the background.

The following day after the Lexus, Dame Kiwi phoned Rhodes and offered to help him become an international operatic star.

She compared the richness in his voice to herself and Inia Te Wiata.

Nine years later, Rhodes is now an established international opera singer based in Wales, with wife Jemma and two children.

He is back home to play the lead in New Zealand Opera’s upcoming production of Verdi’s Macbeth – the first main-scale production to go ahead since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. The show opens on Wednesday, October 21, to Thursday, October 22.

Dame Kiri recalled first hearing the richness of Rhodes’ voice.

“I had heard very good things about him and was keen to meet him and hear him sing. I wasn’t disappointed. His lovely, rich, powerful baritone voice had a beautiful tone and impressive range,” Dame Kiri told the Herald.

“I recognised it immediately, as an outstanding voice that could take him far. His stage presence was also charismatic and dynamic – he has that elusive X factor in spades. As I got to know him, it was clear he also possessed the other attributes necessary to advance in the difficult world of opera.”

Dame Kiri said Rhodes was a great pupil and always took advice on board.

“He worked extremely hard with great determination, focus and willingness to learn. I was aware, too, that his personal story was a difficult and at times heartbreaking one. To his great credit he has kept moving forward and is an example to all of us.”

“His great success today is the result of a very beautiful voice and great determination. It brings me immense joy to see his success.”

Rhodes said he cannot thank Dame Kiwi enough for being his mentor and friend.

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