Kiri Te Kanawa: Life After Opera

One of opera’s great careers shortly comes to an end when the curtain falls on Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment at Covent Garden.

One of opera’s great careers shortly comes to an end when the curtain falls on Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment at Covent Garden.

While by common consensus her voice remains as radiant as ever and shows no sign of diminishing – which comes from possessing one of the finest vocal techniques in the business – the New Zealand soprano, who turned 70 in March, has announced her retirement from opera. From now on, she will only give concert and recital appearances. Solo shows are where many believe she really shines, though. Dame Kiri says she loves them because she can sing music entirely of her own choosing and pace an evening as she feels best. And as audiences may remember from 2011, when she was here last, few opera stars can give as classy a solo concert as she can. Adelaide will hear Kiri the recitalist once again this May, when she presents two hours of her favourite music with compatriot Terrence Dennis accompanying on piano. It will include some surprises, as she explains: “I enjoyed all my opera years, but I’m aware that an opera gives an audience only one composer’s music for the evening. In a concert the singer can present various composers and items in several musical styles. That’s what I do – I particularly enjoy Mozart and will include some of his song material. As a contrast, I also enjoy the French Songs of the Auvergne and will certainly include one or two. And for something different, a song from the South American composer Granados. And to hark back to my opera years, I’ll sing some Puccini.” Since she visited Adelaide three years ago, much has happened in Te Kanawa’s life. Recently, she found herself at the centre of controversy after remarks she made about girl singers who starve themselves to look good on camera, and wannabes on talent shows who lack any proper training. “A singing voice needs a body to support it. You can’t sing with no microphone over a full orchestra for a couple of hours, feeling hungry,” she says. Last year, Dame Kiri took many by surprise by appearing on television herself, in the UK series Downton Abbey. Acting the part of Dame Nellie Melba, she serenaded the Crawley household in an after-dinner performance of Puccini’s ‘O Mio Babbino, Caro’. What was it like stepping into the shoes of another famous singer? “Although we have a similar career path – soprano from the ‘other side of the world’ making it good internationally – in many ways Dame Nellie and I are very different. But I was honoured to represent her, and very amused that the script had the American-born Countess putting the Earl and the butler firmly in their place when they were preparing to dismiss Dame Nellie as ‘just an Australian’. It wasn’t a major role – Dame Nellie’s visit and her brief songs are only an ingredient in a major plot sequence which takes part at the same time.” Te Kanawa says acting in a TV drama turned out to be little different to performing on the opera stage. “The music helps a lot of course, so although the two experiences are similar, a play or TV drama has just words, which makes it slightly harder.” It helped, she adds, that right through her own career Nellie Melba has been an inspirational figure. “There is very little not to admire about Dame Nellie Melba. Apart from the magic of her voice, she had an indomitable spirit, a huge capacity for work, did not suffer fools gladly, and also never forgot her home country, setting up music training here and then spearheading Australia’s fund-raising for war charities. No wonder she is such a legend.” But while she admires many other greats from the operatic past, Te Kanawa says that no other singer has influenced her as much as Joan Sutherland. “I only heard Callas once, one of her last performances at the very end of her career. Without question she had a wonderful presence – but by the 1970s her voice was not the voice of her past glory. On the other hand, when I went to London in 1966, Dame Joan Sutherland was in full flight – all of us at the London Opera Centre regarded her as a goddess. It was she and Richard Bonynge who advised me to move from mezzo into soprano training – and they were right! There are other singers to admire – but Dame Joan Sutherland was by far the greatest in my time.” Last year also saw Te Kanawa release her first record in seven years. Waiata is her third recording of all-Maori songs, and she says Adelaide will hear a selection. “My father was Maori but my school-days and early singing lessons eased my own musical training in a different more ‘classical’ direction, so I didn’t have a lot of contact with Maori music. But the interest was always there. Maori music is very lyrical – it sits favourably into a singing voice, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of working with it.” Will this be the New Zealander’s last Australian tour? “Ah, I can’t answer that because I don’t know!,” she laughs. “Ask me a year from now.”   Dame Kiri Te Kanawa 70th Birthday Gala Festival Theatre Sunday, May 18 adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au

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