Primary colours: I am a quarter - or half - Maori. I think my [adoptive] father wanted a boy so that he could do boyish things with him. We didn't have any books in our house and my mother used to make up stories to tell me every night. I went to what I think was a state school in Gisborne (North Island, New Zealand). My singing teacher was quite wonderful and we had a beautiful rehearsal room where you could practise with a dummy piano.
Secondary characteristics: I was taught by nuns most of my life. In my second school, there was one who was absolutely vicious; I was beaten and she made my nose bleed. My parents complained and she was very sheepish. I don't think I was very good at school. Singing was my life. I used to sing to my mother. I have a recording of myself when I was eight and you can tell I had a voice then. When I was 11 or 12 my parents "uplifted" and went to Auckland because of my voice. Sister Mary Leo at St Mary's, which had a very good music school, was the only person in New Zealand for us. My father got a new job and it was difficult for them; St Mary's was a private, fee-paying school. But my mother was determined and I got in. It was very academic. I got my Trinity College and Royal College of Music exams - but I never got anywhere near formal exams. (Since then I've tried to learn as much as I can. I'm very interested in history; I read biographies.) Sister Mary Leo was a very strong lady and would pull me out of formal education and lessons. The music school was a separate building, like someone's house. I earned pocket money from my singing. I came up through the ranks of competitive singing.
Further musical education: My formal education terminated at 16 and until I was 22 I was a private pupil with Sister Mary Leo. I left New Zealand with my mother to study at the London Opera Centre for four years. I needed some musical stability. I got a lot from it; people there saw my warts - and gave me my chances. I felt that the other students were far more focused than me; they'd gone through a fairly strict discipline. When I came to England, everybody took my voice seriously so I thought I'd better take it seriously too - not fool around. But I have a laid- back attitude; you can't take everything too seriously. I have no fear of being better or worse than anyone else.
Interview By Jonathan Sale
CORRECTION: Barry Unsworth's new book is called `Losing Nelson', not `Losing Hannibal' as reported 19 August.