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A Classical Crossover

Hayley Westenra
www.hayleywestenra.com
When the time came to pick a title for singer Hayley Westenra's debut album, "Pure," more than just her music factored into the decision.

According to the 17-year-old New Zealand native, "[the record label] thought my voice was pure and the fact that the music isn't…manufactured in any way, pretty clean, and the fact that I'm from New Zealand as well… [the title] made sense."

Almost instantly, "Pure" became a huge hit in New Zealand, Australia and Japan. It is also the fastest-selling album ever on Britain's classical charts. Confident that Westenra has marketable talent and image, Universal Music Group recently signed the teenager to a $4.5 million contract.

"It was this dream," says Westenra, "that you know, I guess, every kid wants to sort of perform on stage really. It was sort of, like, 'Wow, wouldn't it be cool to do something I love and have a career out of it.'"

When asked if she considers herself especially motivated, Westenra replies that, while she isn't "ruthlessly ambitious," she does have great aspirations in terms of "style and music. I'm happy where I am," she says, "but I want to keep going up and reaching more people."

Westenra's desire to expand her audience is no doubt music to the ears of an industry anticipating a third straight year of slumping sales. Her following of fans, most of whom are in their 50s and above, comprises the niche that's come to be called 'classical crossover,' a bright spot for the music business.

Universal hopes Westenra can also attract a younger audience, closer to her own age, a wish the singer regards more as a business model than a personal career goal:

"It's nice when you get people your own age saying, 'Oh, that's cool what you're doing,'" she admits, "[but] I know I'm not going to expect a whole bunch of teens going along to my concerts. I don't mind."

This kind of self-assurance comes from experience. Westenra has been performing in New Zealand since she was 6, after a teacher urged her parents to give the girl music lessons. Piano and violin soon gave way to voice as Westenra's instrument of choice.

Her siblings, 10-year-old Isaac and 13-year-old Sophie occasionally accompany her, and have become traveling companions. In fact, one way the Westenra family has adjusted to Hayley's singing schedule has been to put the whole family on the road with her. Still, the Westenra's family life remains far from typical.

Nurturing Hayley's career has meant big adjustments for the entire Westenra family. Her father, Gerald, has interrupted his work as a gemologist to become Hayley's road manager. A big part of Jill Westenra's job is juggling the dual responsibilities of being a mother and guarding her daughter's image as an entertainer. Jill insists that she is not a stage mother and that, despite all her success, Hayley has not become a prima donna.

"Hayley's not really like that," her mother says. "I see children who would be like that; I see children who don't even have the opportunities ever like that, but I think part of it's the nature of the person."

But however down-to-earth the Westenras may be, Hayley still won't have the opportunity to live a typical teenage life. For one, she's too busy to attend regular school, though she tries to keep up with schoolwork when she can. In addition to sacrificing both her New Zealand home and high school life, Hayley has virtually no social life; the only dates she gets to make are for concerts. Still, the teenager claims not to mind.

"I don't mind that I'm missing out on that aspect at the moment," Hayley says. "I mean, I'm sure, and probably in a year's time it might be quite nice to have a boyfriend and meet someone, but you know, at the moment I'm pretty excited about what I'm doing…I want to make the most of this opportunity and I don't want to let anything get in the way, really."

For now, Hayley's plan is to spend the next six months in America. According to her record company, she already is a celebrity in 20 percent of the world, and she plans to spread that fame to the remaining 80 percent through working promotions and television appearances. None of this, however, seems like work to Hayley.

"The singing part doesn't feel like work at all," she says, "that's the bit I enjoy." The bit, Hayley adds, that is "pure enjoyment."