by Melissa Rodgers

A Passion for singing

When Scott Bezett steps on to the Dunedin Town Hall stage in the role of Jesus, it will be his first experience performing with a full orchestra. He tells Rebecca Fox about the nerves and excitement.

He may be a Lake Mahinerangi farm boy who only discovered classical music a few years ago, but Scott Bezett is eager to make the stage his.

''Once I was shown the amazing repertoire, it was a real eye opener - there is more to music than the top 40 on the radio.''

Bezett came late to singing, instead preferring to concentrate on rowing and rugby at high school, and some acting and singing in school musicals on the side.

But his music teacher finally convinced him to get involved in the choir, and Bezett got his first taste of classical music.

Then, in his final year at Otago Boys High School, where he was head boy, Bezett took part in the local singing competitions.

University of Otago Assoc Prof Judy Bellingham spotted his potential there and suggested he consider studying singing at university.

He auditioned, was accepted and thought it would be good to get a year's singing instruction under his belt while concentrating on his arts degree in classics and maths.

''At the end of the year, Terence Dennis [University of Otago classical music performance co-ordinator] suggested I should consider continuing for another year ... now four years down the track, I'm still studying it.''

That is because he has fallen in love with opera.

''There is such a wealth of stuff out there and, as I'm growing into my voice, there are more opportunities to perform different music.

''I'm a farm kid singing opera - it's a whole new world.''

In the past few years, he has had roles in Opera Otago productions of Red Riding Hood and Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, as well as performing with Little House of Operas and the Royal Dunedin Male Choir.

''You get fantastic opportunities here in Dunedin to perform great stuff. This [the St Matthew Passion] is a great example. It is a testament to the music scene in Dunedin and how open they are to new people coming in.''

Bezett was selected by City Choir Dunedin's music director David Burchell to take the role of Jesus in Bach's St Matthew Passion - a piece that is considered one of the pinnacles of the choral repertoire.

''It took me by surprise. It's a real honour and privilege.''

The performance will be his first time singing with the backing of the DSO and two choirs.

''It will be quite overwhelming, but I'm looking forward to it.''

St Matthew Passion was composed by Bach for the 1727 Good Friday service at St Thomas' Church in Leipzig, Germany. In the Middle Ages, Christian churches began observing Holy Week by retelling the story of Christ's crucifixion in music.

The work - beginning in the turmoil of Jesus' last days in Jerusalem and ending with his crucifixion and burial - is the largest single composition Bach wrote in terms of length and resources needed. It requires a double choir, a large orchestra and seven soloists.

''It is not undertaken lightly,'' says Burchell. ''And in New Zealand it's not performed as often as it deserves - the last time it was sung in Dunedin was in 2005.

''The work is framed by three extended choruses, which is some of Bach's best music for choir. So from the choir's perspective, there is a lot to like.''

City Choir has called on the Christchurch City Choir and the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra to join it in the performance and soloists Iain Tetley (Evangelist), Lois Johnston (soprano), Claire Barton (alto), Andrew Grenon (tenor) and Malcolm Leitch (bass).

Fairfield School choir Forte will also take to the stage for the production, bringing the number of musicians and singers on stage to 250.

Burchell, who will conduct the performance, chose Bezett because he wanted a young man.

''Jesus is believed to have been in his early 30s, so Scott's a little young, but this was preferable to someone in their 50s or 60s. A young voice can more readily portray Jesus' youthful determination and scorn of authority, but also his vulnerability - he knew crucifixion was his destiny, but he wasn't at all sure about going through with it.''

Bezett's acting and opera experience meant he had a well-developed sense of dramatic timing and delivery of text.

''While he is not called upon physically to act, the singer needs to live the role as an actor does. Scott also has good command of the German language, which is especially important as the work is being performed in that language.''

''It is one of the most important pieces of the music of that era. Often it is sung in English, so to get the opportunity to sing it as Bach intended is nice,'' Bezett says.

''The German repertoire is gorgeous. The German vowels lend themselves to the expression of emotion.''

The role is requiring ''hours and hours'' a week practising. While he can only sing for so many hours a day without affecting his voice, he does a lot of ''silent practice'' learning the score.

''While I'll have the score on stage, it's nice to have most of it memorised, so I can really perform the role not have my head stuck in the book.''

It is important to understand the story in the music and convey that in the performance.

He admits to suffering from some serious nerves before performances.

''I'm terrified. I get a lot of nerves mixed in with excitement, but I think that shows how important it is to you and as long as you have done the work it will all work out.

''Once I'm on stage I'm fine, I'm in the moment and let it go, but the hours leading up to it can be a bit stressful.''

His family are a bit bemused by his passion for opera but support him fully.

''Mum and my sister love coming. Dad's a farmer - he's not sure, but he's learning to love it.''

Thank  you to the ODT for the use of this article.