Returning to Rarotonga to play to a home crowd would have scared some singers – but Ridge Ponini has had far more terrifying experiences on stage.
The 23-year-old rising opera star recalls one time when he had a performance and had to hide a rip in his pants.
He jokes: “Us Cook Islanders always need to buy new suits because we keep getting bigger.”
This week, Ponini is back at university in chilly Dunedin, New Zealand, dressed in his winter woollies as he studies towards his honours degree in classical music performance.
Last week, thought he felt the warmth of the Cooks. The tenor came home to perform at the BCI Opera in Rarotonga, as well as fronting up for performances like one for the children at Te Uki Ou school.
That means a lot to him – because for all his success on the international stage, nothing beats the memory of singing at the CICC church in Nikao, as a kid.
“I used to sing in a boys’ a cappella group in church every Sunday. We were called the boys of harmony,” he recalls. “I loved getting together at church, laughing and having a feed.”
Ponini spent his high school years at Tereora College where he graduated in 2013 and in 2015 made his way to the University of Otago to study classical music.
“At the time, I never took music at Tereora and I don’t think we had a music teacher. I was just casually singing on my own. Making notes up as I went. I didn’t know anything about music notations or theory.”
Ponini adds: “One of my teachers told me I had the potential to become an opera singer and I didn’t believe her. But after I sent an audition video to Otago, they told me I had a spot. I took that opportunity and I haven’t regretted anything so far.”
He has competed and placed in a number of opera competitions, and he was also the president of the Cook Islands Student Association in Dunedin where he helped to support other students.
“I want to open the doors to all Cook Islanders who are interested in music and the performing arts,” says Ponini.
“The opera isn’t something that locals are used to but we can do it.”
Aside from opera music, Ponini also sings contemporary, Cook Islands Maori and church songs – and while in Raro, he visited Hula Bar to hear Ghana-born soul queen Adina.
Ponini says the most exciting part of his career is meeting new people, like the opera singers here.
“It’s been a really interesting and challenging journey which I enjoy.”
Returning home to perform for his people and family in the BCI Opera in Rarotonga was a dream come true for him.
Family has been one of Ponini’s major motivations, he explains. “I have a lot of strong support from my family in New Zealand and Rarotonga. My grandparents who encouraged me to seek every opportunity – they are the ones who helped me get this far.
His grandparents, Papa San and Mama San, passed away a couple of years ago.
“It’s sad to come back and perform in this concert and not having them here, but I know that they are looking out for me.”
There is a bright future ahead for Ponini who wants to move to Auckland and further his training and vocal technique after he completes his honours degree.
From wowing the local crowd at the opera to attending the Adina concert, Ponini is ready to get back into study mode in the cold climate of Dunedin.