One true diva

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who preparing the next generation of singers, says she’s looking forward to her first visit to Israel in a decade.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa 521 (photo credit: John Swannell)
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa 521
(photo credit: John Swannell)
There may be imitators or wannabes, but there is really only one true diva – legendary soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
As one of the world’s leading operatic sopranos in the 1970s and ’80s, the New Zealand-born superstar found particular success in portraying princesses, noble countesses and other similar characters on stage, due to her dignified stage presence and physical beauty.
And although she elegantly wears the mantles of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, bestowed upon her in 1982; Honorary Companion of the Order of Australia, which she received in 1990; and the Order of New Zealand, in the 1995 Queen’s Birthday Honors List, the stately 67-year-old doesn’t put much stock in the “D-word.”
“I am very honored and proud to carry the title of dame of the British Empire, which means a great deal to me. But a diva is just a way of describing an artist, I think,” she told The Jerusalem Post recently from her home in Sussex, England.
She was speaking a few days before the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, which, like millions of others, Te Kanawa planned to watch on TV. Thirty years ago, however, she played an active role in the nuptials of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, singing at their ceremony in St. Paul’s Cathedral before a TV audience estimated at over 600 million. Te Kanawa performed for the royal family again in 2002 at a gala Buckingham Palace concert in celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee.
And last week, she crossed paths with the royals again, returning to Buckingham Palace to introduce a new generation of musicians, dancers and performers to Queen Elizabeth II in a celebration of Youth in the Arts.
Although she now only rarely sings in operas, Te Kanawa still frequently performs in concert and at recitals, while giving master classes and supporting young opera singers in launching their careers. She bristled at the notion of giving up singing and working with young talent any time soon.
“Retirement? Goodness me, I think that if I were to officially retire, I would rust!” she said.
“And while I may not be performing in major opera roles now, I have a very busy concert schedule, as well as my teaching,” she added, on the eve of leaving her home for a recital tour in Denmark and Holland.
The performing schedule also includes a highly anticipated concert at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center on June 4 as part of the Israel Festival, Te Kanawa’s first visit to Israel in over a decade – and one to which the diva said she was very much looking forward.
TE KANAWA was adopted as a baby in New Zealand by a father of native Maori descent, Thomas Te Kanawa, and his European wife Nell. By the age of 20, she had already won the major vocal prizes in the South Pacific and launched her recording career.
After moving to London and studying at the London Opera Center, she rose to “sensation” status almost overnight following her debut as the Countess in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at London’s Royal Opera House in 1971.
Since then, the mother of two, who was divorced in 1997, has appeared in the leading opera houses of the world and has performed in all the key soprano heroine roles: Richard Strauss’s Arabella, the Marschallin, and the Countess in Capriccio; Mozart’s Fiordiligi, Donna Elvira, Pamina and the Countess Almaviva; Verdi’s Violetta, Amelia Boccanegra and Desdemona; Puccini’s Tosca, Mimi and Manon Lescaut; Johann Strauss’s Rosalinde; and Tchaikovsky’s Tatiana.
Appearing in such diverse settings as Tanglewood, the Hollywood Bowl, the festivals of Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg, and the desert outback of Australia, Te Kanawa has graced many of the world’s major orchestra with her vocals, and has worked with conductors like Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa and Sir Georg Solti.
But her expertise extends far beyond opera. She has recorded an album of American popular songs with Nelson Riddle, albums of Gershwin, Porter and Kern songs, and musical compilations of My Fair Lady, South Pacific and West Side Story, as well as a tribute to her background in the 2000 album Maori Songs.
“From my early studies in London, I was aware of the huge range of wonderful roles for me to learn and sing, if I were chosen to do so,” she said. “And an early appreciation of classical music was instilled in me by my very exceptional teacher in New Zealand, Sister Leo, at the convent school I went to. But I always loved the music of the ’60’s, and in fact still enjoy listening to good contemporary music – I might have a surprise in my [Jerusalem] concert for the audience!” Te Kanawa pleasantly surprises herself these days by working in frameworks like the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation and the BBC Radio 2 Kiri Prize competition to discover and develop the next generation of vocal talent.
While publicly expressing disdain for the musical competition reality genre, Te Kanawa said that the BBC project, launched last year to locate a gifted future opera singer, was an exception to the rule.
“This has been one of the great pleasures of the past year,” she said. “Selecting the young talented singers from all over the UK from almost 600 tapes and auditions in different cities was a huge task, and one I enjoyed thoroughly.”
The 40 contestants who passed the first rounds were brought to the Royal College of Music in London, where Te Kanawa and other professionals offered master classes and whittled the list down to six finalists.
“It was an exciting six-month challenge – and in the end, we found a wonderful dramatic soprano with a great future ahead – Shuna Scott Sendall,” said Te Kanawa. “The final program, with orchestra, was broadcast by the BBC, and also shown in part on TV. But Shuna also had the ‘prize’ of singing with me in London’s [annual concert] Proms in the Park.”
Even closer to Te Kanawa’s heart is her foundation, established to give support to New Zealanders, and now international young singers, who want to pursue a career outside of their homeland and study abroad.
“We raise funds to help students to undertake extensive singing tuition, help to pay for their flights and teaching, and give them the support they need in these difficult times,” she said. “It is such a pleasure to be involved with young people who are committed to their dreams and will work hard to make them come true. In fact, one of the young singers who has been a beneficiary of my foundation will be joining me in Israel for this concert – a young Maori baritone, Phillip Rhodes, who I feel is now poised for an international career.”
Te Kanawa’s affinity for her homeland expressed itself loud and clear earlier this year following the devastating earthquake that struck Christchurch, in the Canterbury region of New Zealand’s South Island, killing more than 170 people.
“The scenes I watched then were heartbreaking. From a distance it’s difficult to understand the anguish, terror and anxiety that the people of Canterbury are still experiencing. All I can do is pray that people will have the strength and resilience to see this new crisis through and that it never happens again,” said Te Kanawa.
However, she did more than pray, performing in a charity concert to raise funds for the Christchurch Symphony and Southern Opera.
“That night was a celebration, and now those same people have to start all over again. I have been trying to help in a practical way by encouraging people attending my concerts to contribute to the Red Cross Christchurch earthquake appeal to help those in need so that those left to pick up the pieces will know that we care and are willing to support them in their hour of need.”
With such a frenzied schedule, it’s no wonder Te Kanawa scoffed at the idea of retirement. Surrounding herself with young singers is keeping her young herself, she said, and also keeping her voice supple.
“I have the opportunity to work with many young singers almost every day – so my voice is constantly ‘in practice,’” she said. “I hope I shall continue to keep it in good shape.”
If Te Kanawa is a diva, then at least she’s a hardworking one.