• In the radio booth at Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre for a live NZSO broadcast.
  • In costume for NZ Opera's Katya Kabanova.
  • Clarissa Dunn
  • Clarissa Dunn.

Clarissa Dunn - Life on the airwaves

Soprano Clarissa Dunn, Supreme AIMES Award winner in the year 2000, has a spellbinding voice that has captivated audiences across New Zealand and around the world, and not just in song. Clarissa has performed operatically in London, Berlin, Prague and Sydney and has a spoken voice that is a warm, familiar sound on Radio New Zealand’s airwaves, where she shares her love of classical music with listeners. From her home in Wellington, Clarissa shares a taste of what has been happening for her since that AIMES win…


What was behind your decision to move to Wellington and do you feel at home there?

After returning from Berlin in 2009 {Clarissa studied there and performed for the Berlin International Opera}, I accepted an offer from Radio New Zealand to work as a presenter on RNZ Concert. I was excited to have an opportunity to work in public radio and to live in a different New Zealand city. 

I do feel at home here. I’ve made some great friends and I love all the off-road trails, which are great for walking and biking. I find the wild south coast rejuvenating and I really enjoy the vibrant CBD environment, where there’s always something creative going on. It’s so easy to live an experience-rich life in Wellington.


Where did you grow up?

I was born in Whakatane but moved to Devonport when I was at primary school after my parents decided to stop farming and introduce my brothers and I to the ‘big smoke’.


What appealed to you about your current role with Radio New Zealand?

In a nutshell: creativity, vocal craft, writing, and communicating with a variety of people in a really meaningful and intimate way.

I love the medium of radio. It’s often called ‘theatre of the mind’ because of its power to engage your imagination. I grew up listening National Radio and Concert FM - as it used to be called - to Dick Weir hosting the children’s show ‘Ears’, and hearing all sorts of music wafting about the house, but especially opera.  

My role has evolved a lot over the years. I started out doing marathon six-hour continuity presentation shifts on a rotating day-part roster, as well as creating feature programmes, hosting the interview show Upbeat (I love interviewing), and doing live outside concert broadcasts (both on and off stage). 

Now I host a specific day part and also connect with our audience online through social media, video story-telling and web content.

I am about to become the voice of Music Alive, our evening concert spot, which features a huge variety of exceptional musical performances recorded both in New Zealand, and in some of the best concert halls and theatres from around the world. 

This role will involve more live concert presentation both on and off stage, and more engaging production to support our world-class broadcasts both on air and online. It’s going to be such a joy!


Any updates on any other work you may be engaged in? 

Outside of RNZ I have a diverse portfolio of contract work, which includes singing with NZ Opera, writing, hosting live music events and working all over the country as a marriage celebrant.


What did winning an AIMES Award enable you to do?

Winning the AIMES Award and Millennium Award gave me the breathing space to concentrate 100% on my vocal development at the Queensland Conservatorium. I had just completed a conjoint Law and Arts degree so the timing was perfect.


Who would you most love to work with?

I would love to have made a podcast series with neurologist Oliver Sacks before he died. He had such a fascinating way of looking at the world and I know he longed to live in NZ. He wrote a lovely letter to Wellington’s Unity Books saying as much.

I often wonder what it would be like to have Mozart come back from the dead to direct a season of his own operas. He had a wicked sense of humour so there’s every possibility he might spend more time laughing and making practical jokes than actually directing.

In general, I like to work with people who care about their what they do, who are smart, passionate, creative and motivated, and who don’t mind bending the boundaries from time to time.


Can you sum up 2017 in three words?

Challenging, varied and sometimes confusing.


By the end of 2018, I would like to have…completed another multi-day bike ride with my best friend (perhaps the Ghost Trail on the West Coast), to have helped create a thriving Music Alive programme, to have passed my German language exams and to have made firm plans for my next career challenge. 


What do you see as the most important trends for 2018 and how they may impact on you?

I am keeping a close eye on artificial intelligence-powered voice technologies. They are already changing the way we interact with many things in our lives, including radio. 

The human voice and languages are close to my heart and the challenges these technologies will have to overcome to be even more life-like, responsive and interactive highlights how remarkable and complex the human body, speech and language really is.