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Helen Medlyn, opera singer and biker chick

Helen Medlyn and her Harley hit the highway.

The rain is misting down outside Auckland's Waterfront Theatre as opera singer Helen Medlyn pulls her Harley Davidson 'Dyna Fat Bob' up onto the pavement, engine growling throatily like some primal animal.

Later, like the rain, Medlyn's eyes mist over as she remembers how she was able to to buy her Harley. Po, she calls him, the Maori word for night - all black and leather and steel and chrome.

"I'm really close to my dad - or I was, before he passed in 2011," says the 59-year-old mezzo soprano, currently starring as Katisha in Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado, playing in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch throughout February and March.

Helen Medlyn, singer in NZ Opera's The Mikado, who will ride her motorbike the length of the country between performances.

"Just prior to when he died - he had dementia, but he said to me, 'Your Mum and I' - even though she'd passed - 'Your Mum and I want you and your sister to have this money. And I want you to spend it on your happiness. Not on bills'. Like in a moment of lucidity in the middle of his dementia, those were his words. And I really held on to that.

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"So when he passed away - he died in my arms, it was the most moving thing that has ever happened in my whole life. I've never watched someone die before, but it was beautiful.


Opera singer Helen Medlyn (left) in character on stage as Katisha, with actor Byron Coll as Ko-Ko in Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado.

"He waited for me - he was down in Te Kauwhata and he knew I was coming, but I was running late. And he waited until I got there. He breathed two more breaths and then he went.

"And I remembered those words. So I went and spent $20,000 - the money they'd given to my sister and I - on that, on him," she says, gesturing to Po, who will carry her from Auckland to Wellington to Christchurch while the rest of The Mikado cast travels by more conventional means.

For Medlyn, the theatre is in her blood - her grandparents were performers, as was her mother, and she herself first took to the stage as an eight year old in another Gilbert & Sullivan production, The Pirates Of Penzance

Helen Medlyn: "There's a lovely saying: 'Sometimes it takes a whole tank of gas to clear your head'. And that's the truth."

But it would seem there's always been a fair mix of petrolhead in the Medlyn blood too.

She got her first bike at the age of 18, a little Honda 175 dirtbike like her boyfriend's. An accident on the tram lines at Western Springs put paid to her early biking escapades though: "It gave my father the bigger fright," she remembers, "so he said 'Right, that's it, no more'. And that was that."

It would be more than two decades before she decided she'd try again, aged 42 this time. "I bought myself a little Honda Rebel, because I liked the name," she admits with some embarrassment.

Opera singer Helen Medlyn with Po, her Harley Davidson 'Dyna Fat Bob'.

Once more, an accident stopped her in her tracks, but it would only be another 10 years or so before the road came calling again and she eventually took possession of Po just over three years ago, as soon as she got her full licence.

"I just love every opportunity to ride him," says Medlyn of her plan to ride from city to city between shows, before going on to explain how her two passions - the stage and her Harley - both give her similar feelings of joy.

"Without getting too much into the psychological or spiritual side of things - I feel the most comfortable on the stage," she says. "In real life, like everybody, I have struggles, so the stage is a real outlet for every part of my being."

"It's a powerful feeling, a feeling of freedom - I feel very comfortable there, I feel at home on the stage. And I feel at home on that bike. There's a lovely saying: 'Sometimes it takes a whole tank of gas to clear your head'. And that's the truth."

The Mikado, Auckland's Waterfront Theatre until tonight, Wellington Opera House: Feb 25-Mar 2, Christchurch's Isaac Theatre Royal: Mar 7-11.