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Kiri Te Kanawa: opera won't fade out

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The growth of music reproduction and “magnificently visual” 21st-century stage spectaculars will help ensure opera survives and thrives, says Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

After a career spanning around 40 years, the New Zealand soprano spends a great deal of time these days investing in the future of the art through her mentorship of young opera singers. She also recently performed with the Royal Opera in La Fille du Regiment at Covent Garden, released a new album (Waiata) with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and is about to embark on a concert tour of Australia next month to celebrate the year of her 70th birthday.

Here, she talks about her career highlights, favourite composers, the advice she would give emerging opera singers, and her appearance on the TV show Downton Abbey.

You will be performing work by some of your favourite composers on your Australian tour – what is the piece of music you most love to sing and why?

During my opera years I particularly enjoyed singing the music of Mozart and Strauss, and I often include some of their song material in concert programs. As a contrast, I also enjoy the songs of South American composer Guastavino, and usually include one of his songs as well.

Unlike an opera, which gives an audience music by just one composer for the whole evening, a concert can present a variety of composers and  musical styles – and that’s what I like to do.

You seem very busy, even making an appearance last year on Downton Abbey. How did you enjoy your TV experience?

It was wonderful. My role as Dame Nellie Melba is not long – I sang some excerpts from her repertoire, but the scenes are brief, because Dame Nellie’s visit to Downton only forms a distraction from an important incident which forms a major part of Downton’s plotting for weeks ahead. So, yes, I enjoyed the experience very much, but my songs are only one ingredient in a bigger story.

There have been many highlights in your career, but what is the one performance you would describe as the pinnacle – the show you will always remember?

That’s hard to answer – I’ve had great pleasure in many performances. But one of the two I’d nominate was my debut performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York during a snowstorm – I sang Desdemona in Othello at very short notice with no full rehearsal, and it was a live radio-broadcast over the whole USA.  Fortunately there were no mishaps – and that performance formed an “introduction” to the American music scene, which led to many other happy performances and tours.

Then I have to acknowledge that Prince Charles’s wedding was a major milestone – a most impressive event with a big St Paul’s Cathedral audience. We didn’t know until afterwards that the TV audience went into several hundred millions – but thankfully, that performance also went without mishap.

I understand your mother believed your singing talent came from your Maori heritage. What’s your view?

She did say “The Maori part of you will be the important part”. And when I was only five my mother was certainly the first person to notice that I could sing in tune and get all the words right. That’s why she had me singing to her visitors and then on radio when I was only six. And my Maori father was a gracious man with a love of the outdoors. So it was actually a combination of the two parents which influenced the way I grew up and was encouraged.

With so many different forms of entertainment vying for audience attention these days, and seemingly ever-shorter attention spans, are you optimistic for the future of opera?

Absolutely, yes. The growth of music reproduction with things like CDs, videos, live “streaming” and worldwide cinemas playing “captured” performances from famous opera houses is bringing opera more and more into the major public focus. And every time I turn on a radio or TV, there is a commercial using an operatic tune!

Plus, there’s the fact that opera on-stage production is very 21st century – magnificently visual and well able to compete with other stage spectaculars. I don’t see opera fading out yet.

What advice would you give a young opera singer today?

Like Lord Baden-Powell advised:  “Be prepared.” Be prepared for the time it takes – familiarising yourself with at least three languages, possibly four. Forget about smoking and don’t stay in a room where it’s happening. Don’t talk too much on a day when you’re singing that night. Give up a weekend holiday because you’ve agreed to a singing engagement on that date. And don’t sing things you’re not vocally ready for.  Shall I go on???

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, accompanied by pianist Terrence Dennis, will perform a concert of classic and contemporary highlights from her career at Adelaide’s Festival Theatre on May 18 as part of her 70th birthday gala tour.

 

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