Morag Atchison's debut album celebrates her high-school teacher David Hamilton

Morag Atchison is one of New Zealand’s top operatic talents. Her debut album is testament to how it all began.

High-school music teacher David Hamilton with Dr Morag Atchison.
High-school music teacher and composer David Hamilton with Dr Morag Atchison. The pair teamed up on Morag’s debut album. Photo: Arie Hoeflak

It was during high school that Dr Morag Atchison first knew she wanted to make a career out of music.

More than 25 years later, the School of Music senior lecturer has just released her debut album – written by none other than her high-school music teacher and one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most prolific composers, David Hamilton.

The Distance: Songs of David Hamilton is an album of art songs that have played a large part in the soprano singer’s musical journey. Some even date back to her time at Epsom Girls Grammar School, where she performed in the school’s choir as a teenager.

David, who has a Master of Music from the University of Auckland, has had a profound influence on Morag’s career. She credits him for teaching her to love the art of music-making and introducing her to “the beauty, excitement and possibilities of choral and vocal music.”

“It’s David’s fault I’m not a lawyer or something sensible,” she says.

Morag is one of this country’s leading sopranos and voice teachers. She studied at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London and was the first to earn a Doctorate in Musical Arts in Vocal Studies from a New Zealand university.

She has performed many operatic roles and was most recently seen on stage in the New Zealand Opera productions of Macbeth and The Unruly Tourists.

Joining her on The Distance: Songs of David Hamilton are two other colleagues from the School of Music: Rachel Fuller on piano and Luca Manghi on flute.

The trio first began recording the album over summer in 2019 at the School of Music.

“We had to turn the air conditioning off because it makes such a horrible noise,” remembers Rachel. “We were melting.”

But the sessions had been going really well.

“The stars had aligned,” says Morag. “But then Covid hit.”

I knew that Morag was going to do a fabulous job with the music. Luca is a fabulous flautist and Rachel’s a great accompanist. I knew everything was in good hands

David Hamilton, composer, music teacher, alumnus 'The Distance: Songs of David Hamilton' by Morag Atchison, Rachel Fuller and Luca Manghi

Heading into lockdown meant they would have to wait to finish recording, but being at home gave Morag a chance to start brainstorming album titles.

The name of the opening track seemed suddenly poignant amid a lockdown. ‘The Distance’ was a new composition that David had written specifically for the record, with the lyrics set to a poem of the same name by English author Eleanor Farjeon.

The words to the poem conjured up “exotic lands far away, places that have been out of reach for most of us for the last few years,” says Morag.

The album was finally finished in 2022 and is dedicated to Morag’s mother, who passed away during the making of it.

“I knew that Morag was going to do a fabulous job with the music,” says David. “Luca is a fabulous flautist and Rachel’s a great accompanist. I knew everything was in good hands.”

But it hasn’t always been an easy run for the renowned singer and composer. Back in fourth form (Year 10), Morag wasn’t even picked for the school choir.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was so angry,” she says. “Then there were auditions halfway through the year and I got in. It was like phew, now I’m here. I’m supposed to be here. This is where I should be.”

Story by Hussein Moses

The Distance: Songs of David Hamilton by Morag Atchison, Rachel Fuller and Luca Manghi, is streaming online and available on CD from Marbecks.

This story first appeared in UniNews June 2023.