When Noémi Kiss met the late David Herbison in Victoria in 2008, a new world opened up for both of them.
He was a member of the large family of musically accomplished Herbisons in Argenta. In Victoria he was visiting his sister, the opera singer Nancy Herbison who earlier in her career had changed her name to Nancy Argenta.
During that visit, David Herbison happened to meet his sister’s friend, the classical singer Noémi Kiss, visiting from Budapest. The two women met years earlier in London where Kiss was studying.
Herbison and Kiss fell in love.
“That was the most unlikely thing in the world,” says Kiss, “because he was 25 years older than me but it was this beautiful heart connection from the very first moment we met.”
Herbison was 60 and Kiss was 35. They were at different stages in life and wanted different things from it. They talked about this a lot, about how crazy it was but how they seemed to have little choice.
Part of their connection was musical.
“David had a beautiful voice. Nancy always said he could have had a career, but he didn’t want to. He was a beautiful natural communicator. The way he sang songs was amazing. It was beautiful, and I loved singing with him. We sang a lot of duets.”
‘It was a good little life’
Before meeting Herbison, Kiss had a singing career in Europe, performing mostly early music. She graduated from the Liszt Academy in Budapest and then studied in England. She became a voice teacher and performed with a variety of ensembles and orchestras across Europe, including the Budapest Festival Orchestra.
“I did freelance concerts, oratorios, cantatas, song recitals, travelled with orchestras in Europe, made recordings. It was a good little life.”
In London, Nancy Argenta would show Kiss photos of her hometown in B.C.
“Her fridge door was full of Herbison pictures and she would talk to me about the family, and she said, ‘This is the smallest place in the world.’
“It sounded magical but I had no idea I would end up being here.”
‘Beautiful and scary at the same time’
The first time she visited Argenta for a two-day visit, it was March, with snow still on the ground.
“I remember getting out of the car at this place and just feeling, oh my God, I have arrived home.”
But she didn’t tell Herbison about that feeling, not yet, because it was still unclear where their relationship was headed.
“It was beautiful and scary at the same time.”
For the next while, Kiss moved back and forth between Hungary and Victoria, living and teaching in both places, with visits to Argenta becoming longer and more frequent.
In 2009 she started teaching voice lessons in Nelson and sang in the Messiah at the Capitol Theatre.
Kathleen Neudorf directs the Nelson Choral Society. When she heard Kiss was thinking of moving to Argenta, “I contacted her about singing the Messiah and when she agreed to sing the production everything became feasible as she came with an added bonus of an enamoured tenor who agreed to sing with her — David Herbison.”
‘You want to die as well’
Not long after, Kiss moved to Argenta.
In 2016, just after the couple had been approved to adopt a child, and while Kiss was traveling in the U.S., Herbison died of a heart attack.
“It was the hardest and most challenging thing I have ever experienced,” she says. “You question everything, you feel like you have lost everything, you want to die as well, you don’t want to exist either. And then slowly you go on.”
She could have moved back to Hungary, but she had a community in Argenta and Nelson now, one that helped and supported her. So she stayed.
“David used to say, what would you do if I suddenly dropped dead? I would tell him I would go back, because you are the reason I am here. And to my surprise and shock after he passed away, that was not the case.”
She says she wanted to experience the loss in the place that it happened, the place that had become home.
“I know a lot of people need to go away, and that is understandable, but I needed to be here,” Kiss says. “I was milking goats, making cheese, taking care of the farm, which was good because I had to get up every day and be there for the animals, and by the time my grief was less raw I already found myself working again and back to teaching and singing concerts.”
Part of the new community that kept her here was Herbison’s daughters Brynne and Vida who were in their late teens and Poppy who was 12 when she met them.
“I had taken on a family of step-children. Why it is so beautiful, what we have, is that I never wanted to be their mom. I knew they had a mom, they had a dad, so I was more of a friend or sister to them.”
After Kiss decided to stay, she discovered she had a new identity.
“When you are younger, you get attached to a certain role or persona. That was easy in Europe. I was this singer and that was who I was.
“Then I moved here and discovered I am a goat milker, I am a horseback rider, I am a stepmother, I am a gardener. And all these parts of me made me happy as well as being a performer, so I think it taught me a lot about what matters and it reshaped a lot of things.”
‘Her presence has raised the bar’
One community that welcomed her in the beginning and supported her through her grief was the musical community in Nelson.
“Being extremely welcomed and helped in this community by Kathleen, by Allison Girvan and all the other musicians,” she says, “that has been an amazing journey to me. Instead of being competitive they have all been wonderful.”
“I have been able to collaborate with Noémi on many projects and have developed a close friendship as a result. Being supported by her and being able to consult and work with her has helped to clarify my own vision for productions.”
Helping others find their voices
Kiss is in a new relationship now, and on the day after the Star interviewed her she drove to Kelowna and became a Canadian citizen.
She continues working in Nelson with many private voice students ranging in age from 12 to 70, and last year she became the conductor of the Cottonwood Singers. Before that she had no experience as a conductor.
“This is a good thing because I have no agenda around it, whereas with classical singing you are full of the perfectionism and expectations of yourself, the shoulds. With conducting I am more free, allowing it to flow and I am learning all the time.”
She wants to study psychology and therapeutic aspects of singing and making music.
“I have always been fascinated with singing bowls, Tibetan bowls, and have started to read about this and am taking a course. I am more into trying to see how I can help more, or help others find their voices.
“My career is not so much about me any more. I think it is my heart’s expression in the world. There is so much.”