Goddess of song
Ahead of her much-anticipated Belfast Festival appearance, Matthew McCreary talks to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa about her life as one of the world’s finest sopranos
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is regarded as one of the finest opera sopranos in the world, and has worked with some of the biggest composers and conductors in classical music.
She was born in 1944 on New Zealand’s North Island, and has European and Maori ancestry. Kiri was trained in operatic singing at school by teacher Sister Mary Leo and began her career as a mezzo-soprano, later developing into a soprano.
In her twenties she received a grant to study in London and was offered a three-year contract at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden where she made her debut in 1970.
She went on to sing in such venues as the Paris Opera, Sydney Opera House, the Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden and La Scala, and became a household name following her performance in front of a global audience of 600 million people at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.
She was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1982, and has supported the work of young musicians and singers in New Zealand through her Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation.
She will be performing at the Ulster Hall in association with NI Opera, and will be accompanied in a duet by Ben McAteer from Newry, who was the winner of this year’s NI Opera Festival of Voice competition.
Are you looking forward to the Belfast Festival? What will you be performing?
I'm really looking forward to this concert, and have been working on the programme with my long-standing colleague, Julian Reynolds, who will be conducting the concert. We work on choosing the repertoire very carefully together and I have just performed with him in a concert in Scarborough — but that programme was very different to what we will be bringing to Belfast.
The work of NI Opera is very important so we have thought a lot about how this will reflect the fine work they are doing.
My own career has focussed a lot on the operas of Mozart and Strauss, so you will find some arias on the programme which I have always really enjoyed singing; the first half is really a homage to those composers. I hope the audiences will enjoy the second half of the programme which takes us into a lighter mood, but never straying far from the opera world! I can promise some Gershwin here, always a great favourite of mine.
You will also be singing a duet alongside Ben McAteer, the winner of the NI Opera Festival of Voice competition. What tips will you have for the young star on stage?
I was so happy to meet Ben McAteer last week in London when he attended a masterclass I was giving — he seems a very hardworking young man and I have been hearing excellent reports about his talents.
I am thrilled we will work together in Belfast and I really wish him all the very best for the future. As with all these young singers, they have such a tough time these days to break through and be ‘discovered' and I would always advise them to keep studying and learning, and really taking care of the precious gift that is their voice.
Do you find life on the road tiring or is it something you still enjoy even after so many years?
My life is still very exciting, with a lot of projects which take me all over the world — but with everything, I think one needs to keep to a set routine in life, wherever you are. I tend to avoid late nights and keep to my own schedule. It also means I have to have good organisation around me to make sure nothing is left to chance, so there is more time to enjoy my travels.
Which roles have been your favourite to perform over the years or is there a composer you prefer in general?
I think it’s hard to say which I have enjoyed the most as the different styles of wonderful composers whose work I have performed are really so varied. A lot has to do with the friendship of other performers on the stage with whom you build up unique relationships, and so whether it has been Mozart, Verdi or Strauss, I think I have been so lucky to find roles which suit my voice and temperament. Perhaps I'd say Arabella, from the opera of the same name by Strauss, or then again, it could be the wonderful role of Desdemona in Othello.
Are there any you really haven’t enjoyed performing?
I think I would have turned down roles where I knew I would feel uncomfortable or ill-placed, so I have always been fortunate in roles offered to me.
When did you realise that you could sing and that was what you wanted to do with your life?
It was always something I enjoyed and my family were musical and encouraged me to sing — we didn’t have television in New Zealand until I was about 16 years old, so much of our entertainment came from what we did ourselves.
Was it tough for someone from a remote country like New Zealand to make a name on the world stage?
Oh yes, it was very hard to begin with but so many people at home in New Zealand gave me support and encouragement — first to be able to come to London to study, which was a major upheaval in those days and then to be able to settle.
I remember arriving in Southampton by boat and thinking this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. My time at the London Opera Studio was extraordinary and I was so privileged to be spotted early on and asked to perform at Covent Garden, which was a dream come true.
The opportunities at home in New Zealand were so limited in comparison, but my singing teacher, Sister Mary Leo, had given me a great grounding technically and, of course, my parents were incredibly supportive.
Who has been the greatest support to you in your career?
Many people ask me this, but I would say that some of the great conductors I have worked with, such as Sir Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan, gave me a different support from my family and teachers.
Has singing ever felt like a job to you, rather than a passion or a calling?
Perhaps I've been one of the fortunate people as I truly love what I have been able to do for all these years, so as a career choice, it was definitely the very best for me.
The word ‘diva’ is often applied to famous opera singers, and not always in a kind way. Do you think it’s a fair label?
It’s a very demanding profession, with a very delicate mechanism — the voice — at the heart of it all. Perhaps we singers have become known for protecting ourselves and maybe this creates an aura around one, so it is a misunderstood description, but I do also think that a diva can mean something quite positive, don’t you?
What are your other passions in life, apart from singing?
I have a new little puppy in my life. Sadly, she won’t be with me in Belfast, as we are still arranging her ‘passport', but you can expect to see her travelling with me in future.
Away from classical music, do you have a wilder side musically?
Not really, as I would always consider my taste as quite conservative, but there are some exceptions. I've recently been singing a wonderful song by Luther Vandross — To Dance with my Father — and find that very touching. But no, not really ‘wild'!
You sang at the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. Were you moved to see their son walking down the aisle 30 years later?
Of course, who could not have been delighted to see those two young people in love and enjoying their special day.
You’re also well known to rugby fans for singing ‘World in Union’ for the 1991 World Cup. Have you been watching this year and who are you tipping to win?
I will be singing in New Zealand on October 22 and you might be in for a surprise. So yes, I've not only been watching, but I'll be in New Zealand for some of the final matches... no tips, however!
Are there any venues which you have enjoyed performing in more than any other? Does the venue make a difference to your performance?
Of course, for everyone who performs, the venue is extremely important and we take a lot of time in advance to make sure it is the right place for my voice and that the programme fits.
I do love going back to New York to sing at the Met (Metropolitan Opera) and I will be there again this December in a speaking/singing role. And of course, Covent Garden in London was always very special for me.
Classical music has undergone quite a transformation in recent years, with more populist acts like Katherine Jenkins, Il Divo, Rhydian etc topping the charts. Do you feel this has been for the better?
That’s a very challenging question, which I am frequently asked and I can only think now of young Ben McAteer, who will be studying hard for quite a few more years before he is on stage in an opera role.
I want him to enjoy a long and lasting career and to concentrate on his craft and not to be sidetracked. Attractive as it is to top the charts, we want him to shine in his career through a different route, which will be quite hard enough.
There have been rumours of your retirement from singing in recent years, but when do you think you might call it a day once and for all?
Well rumours are rumours and I'll let you know when I've decided to call it a day. Don’t forget I am teaching and mentoring young singers all the time, so the work will continue, hopefully, to support the next generation.
- Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, October 30, 8pm Ulster Hall