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She finds opera a welcome escape from the realities of her day job. By day, Morag McDowell investigates death. And by night, well, she sings about it. The full-time Auckland coroner and part-time opera singer talks to Rebecca Barry. For someone who spends a lot of time contemplating death, Morag McDowell packs a lot into life.
She is one of Auckland's three coroners, a job that comes with a hefty workload - the grim reaper does a long shift too. She's also a professional singer with the New Zealand Opera company, with a choral part in the company's production of Macbeth. It's one of Shakespeare's - and Verdi's - most bloodthirsty works. It's my therapy, my way for me to temporarily escape the realities of my day job.
She has an expressive face, piercing blue eyes that light up at the prospect of slipping into peasant-garb to bring to life several characters, including one of the Bard's scheming witches, an how to relieve hemorrhoids during pregnancy and a Scottish refugee.
Macbeth is highly charged, dramatic stuff, and while it would be tempting to suggest her day job is equally so, McDowell says they're worlds apart. She describes the coronial gig as "intensely interesting". She strives to maintain a professional distance but it would take a hard soul not to feel something for the families affected by sudden or unexplained deaths, of which it is McDowell's job to investigate.
It is this sensitivity that stops her from talking about specific cases, although she will say they can be "tremendously sad and tragic: the young men that get into their cars full of alcohol and drive, and die needlessly. Sudden, unexplained death in infancy. It's terrible for the parents but we can try to examine patterns and causes and hopefully some good will come out of looking at these things. Car accidents, for example, can provide an opportunity to examine road safety.
I'm intrigued by the notion that you could get something positive out of tragic events. There could be a real focus on the lessons that could be learned. That really appeals to me. She says it's because of the analytical nature of pulling together information to support her case. But it could also allude to enjoying a moment in the courtroom spotlight. She's also passionate about law in a way I can't understand.
After she had attended a singing what natural herbs are good for anxiety for a while, the teacher encouraged her to stay behind for private lessons. McDowell's parents discovered the depths of her talent only when the bill for the secret tuition turned up in the mail. Her love affair with opera began much later, when she attended Mercury Theatre performances while studying law at the University of Auckland.
It's the orchestra, it's the principals, it's the chorus, this beautiful en masse singing. It's the drama, the acting, the telling of a story, the design, costumes, lighting She is also a member of Rosser's Auckland chamber choir, Viva Voce, and a resident artist with the New Zealand Opera company who occasionally performs solo. Rosser says McDowell has a "freakishly high" voice, a high soprano known as coloratura colouredcapable of the high trills and virtuoso passages that don't tend to go to the fat lady.
Her clear, bright timbre means she's not suited to the resonant Italianate voices of romantic music but to the classical, baroque and contemporary eras.
One of her most difficult performances was when she was 39 weeks pregnant and singing Allegri's Miserere, a piece of church music that required she what causes constant watering eyes the elusive high-C. She also pushed herself to great heights as the understudy to the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute in I had worked really hard to learn the role and to be the best I could be for it.
I got the phone call in the morning to say the principal was ill for dress rehearsal, which was to be a public performance. It was that sense of 'yes, I'm ready to do this, I really, really, really want to do this'.
It was fantastic. At the heart of Macbeth is the murder of Banquo. Rosser is used to joking with McDowell over the morbid nature of her two roles but says it's coincidence. She'd met her husband, a forensic psychiatrist, in her first year at university, and it was through him she became interested in the medical side of law.
After gaining her masters in this area she worked as a Crown prosecutor and later as director of proceedings what does eating celery do for you the Health and Disability Commissioner's office, deciphering health professional standards and those who had breached them. She spotted an opportunity to become a coroner just as the opportunities were drying up. A new act was passed in that would cut the number of New Zealand coroners from up to 70 part-timers to 15 full-time positions.
There are now just three, including McDowell, in Auckland. I think she's very brave. While some coroners are qualified to carry out the medical examinations, in McDowell's case, she is not required to see the bodies in situ, although she will often visit a scene of death if she deems it important, the site of a what was on tv last night nz accident once it's been cleared away, for example.
You're too busy living. But being within it makes you appreciate the importance of relationships you have with people and what you've got. She has two musical teenage sons. Her husband, Jeremy Skipworth, is the clinical director of the Mason Clinic, which deals with criminals with mental illness, those found guilty by reason of insanity or unfit for trial.
The family's dinner table discussions often revolve around ethical and social issues, "whether people are competent to consent to their own medical treatment, things like that". She says this as though it's the most normal thing in the world. Despite their differences, empathy provides the common ground between McDowell's two roles.
As an opera singer, she is essentially an actor too. As a coroner, she frequently deals with grieving families. Different customs can impact on her job - Muslim families often want to get bodies back quickly so they can be buried at spiritually significant times. Maori families cloak death in ritual.
Some families, whether or not for cultural reasons, refuse to consent to post-mortems. The hardest decisions are those in which McDowell must try to balance a family's wishes against the public interest. She must make judgments that would put many of us in an emotional tailspin, such as determining whether someone killed themselves intentionally. Or with cases involving significant injury, part of a case is to look at photographs. You develop a professional, clinical way of dealing with that.
Having said that, you wouldn't be human if you didn't empathise and have the odd case really get to you. In that case it's important to step back. That's where singing comes in. It's a chance to take your mind out of the death arena, which is where we work. Rosser says she unloads to her friends if things start to get to her. The workload gets to her sometimes. Obviously when she's in the middle of a lot of music she gets incredibly busy. I don't let it intrude into my job.
If there are any clashes I'll either take leave to do something for singing or I won't do the singing. If I come in humming a tune or reciting words, trying to remember the next how to make a daily tear off calendar when getting a cup of tea, they're really accepting and supportive.
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