Jonathan Fa’afetai Lemalu has always had music in him. As a teenager he would chant the haka before mashing his opponents on the rugby field - seamlessly blending singing and sport in Dunedin, the New Zealand town he still calls home.
In August the multi-grammy award New Zealand bass-baritone hopes to perform a peace chant on our city’s newest bridge and ring in the beginning of the Walled City Music Festival.
A powerful, warm and captivating bass baritone, Jonathan Lemalu is now one of the most sought-after talents on the international concert, operatic and recital circuit and is a real coup for the organisers of this year’s festival which runs from July 29th to August 7th.
“We are delighted to have an artist of a calibre of Jonathan at this year’s festival,” says Cathal Breslin, festival director.
“He is booked years ahead for the most prestigious European and American concert halls, and with a three year recording contract with EMI Classics, Jonathan’s talent is drawing the spotlight on a world stage.
“Critics and audiences in many countries have responded warmly to his generous stage presence and intelligent interpretive ability.
“He performed at our festival last year and everyone was blown away by his talent. He, himself, absolutely loved Derry and couldn’t wait to come back.”
Born in 1976, his first name is actually Fa’afetai, meaning ‘thank you. His middle name is Jonathan, hebrew for ‘a gift from God’. He says he was given those names because he was born with a hole in his heart, which closed up naturally. Jonathan is slightly easier to pronounce.
Singing has always been a part of his life. His factory-foreman father, who had big sideburns and sang with a rock band, was known as “the Pacific Island Elvis”.
The younger Jonathan chose to sing in choirs - at school, in community centres and in church. However he decided that he would never make a living from his voice and trained as a lawyer instead.
“I was fascinated by it,” he says. “I was argumentative, and I was told I was good at it - I could make the most wrong things sound right, which is what a lawyer’s job is. Getting that law degree was - still is - the highlight of my life, because it didn’t come easy to me. I worked my proverbial off, to get good marks.”
Not even winning New Zealand’s most prestigious singing contest and offers of work from London could persuade him that music was his true calling.
But years on from graduating he’s well on his way to finding fame and fortune for his ‘sumptuously honeyed’ voice.
He became Vilar trainee at the Royal Opera House and critics were soon extolling his bass-baritone voice in culinary terms - “richly creamy”, “like slow-melted chocolate”.
Jonathan Lemalu will perform a program of Schubert, American and English songon Friday July 29 at 8pm alongside Michael Hampton on the piano at the Guildhall.
Tickets, costing £12, are available from the Millennium Forum website www.millenniumforum.co.uk or from their box office on 02871 264455.