3 Mar 2019

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: encouraging the next generation

From Sunday Morning, 8:38 am on 3 March 2019

It's been nearly 50 years since celebrated soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa gained her big break at Covent Garden in London when she was cast as the Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.

Now, on the verge of her 75th birthday, and having drawn the curtain on her glittering career in 2017, Dame Kiri joined Jim Mora in the studio to discuss her incredible life, the three days she recently spent with the Queen of England, the work her foundation is doing to help the next generation of New Zealand singers reach their potential.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Jim Mora: When you sang 'O Mio Babbino Caro' on the Last Night of the Proms in Hyde Park in London in 2010, and that marvellous voice soared into that great night, darkness falling across London, that seemed perfection… Jose Carrera came on with you as well… do you remember that occasion?

Kiri Te Kanawa: Oh yes, it was a wonderful evening, it was Proms in the Park and it was lovely because it was out doors and it was very free, so it's not so formal being outdoors.

JM: That aria was one of your favourites?

KTK: I think it's a bit of a signature aria, it's not what I mainly did, because I never did the opera [Gianni Schicchi], but it's got such a glorious tune, it's very short and sweet and young and hopefully I portray the youth of the young girl in it. I do love the tune and Puccini, he melts you a little bit.

JM: You have sung with all the greats of the recent era in opera… you are feted and cherished more than other sopranos… Andrew Lloyd Webber himself did the introduction for you at his 50th birthday gala at the Royal Albert Hall and you sang Happy Birthday to him … do you stay in touch with all these other people? I'm interested in whether there's a sort of legends club?

KTK: We never seem to be able to stick with the same group of people, we're always moving around, whereas in the acting world they are always in the same group, they're doing the same thing or applying for the same jobs.

But we move around so much internationally. I love the acting world because of the family affair they seem to have, whereas our world is not as close as I would like it.

You depart after six week's of working in America or Europe or somewhere and you don't see them for another five years, you pick up the conversation from where you left off - but still, I would love it to be much closer.

Frederica Von Stade is one of my very favourites and I'll be seeing her in the summer as she's coming to London and she'll be staying with me for a few days.

JM: A birthday. What does it mean in your life? Will there be any sort of bash?

KTK: A quiet one I think, just simply because I'm out here and I want to enjoy the weather which is very, very nice and just enjoy being on the water because it's not something I do normally. Being over in London so much I don't always get to be on the water.

Dame Kiri is a keen fisher and told Jim Mora she'd been fishing on this visit.

I Just got another one two days ago, a big 16-point-something kilos kingie - a lovely big one.

JM: That must have taken some effort?

KTK: Especially on a nothing little rod, it was a bait rod and I was thinking, how do we ever get that thing in the boat? It took a bit of an effort, but we did.

JM: What have you been doing in recent times? I know you have run into the Queen…. you spent time at Sandringham?

KTK: I was invited to Sandringham for three days and three nights which was really incredibly special and Her Majesty was there and the Duke of Edinburgh was there as well, and they were at the lunches and the dinners which were really, really fun.

The invitation came through Princess Anne and Sir Tim Laurence and they said Her Majesty would be in residence if I'd like to join them.

JM: That close relationship with royalty goes back such a long way now.

KTK: I'm not sure it's close...it's not buddy-buddy or anything like that, it's just very nice to get some very nice invitations like that.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa after being appointed a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to music, Buckingham Palace December 2018.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa after being appointed a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to music, Buckingham Palace December 2018. Photo: AFP / FILE

JM: When you were made a member of the Order of the Companions by Prince Charles, it seems to have been a surprise?

KTK: Yes, I was absolutely amazed and it came out of the blue.

There are only 65 such people honoured in the world Dame Kiri says, yet in her native New Zealand it barely got a mention.

"It seems to have disappeared from the New Zealand psyche, because I rang up friends and they said 'oh we didn't see that' and I thought oh … I got letters from Prince Charles, the Duke of Kent, Prince Michael of Kent, Prince Andrew, Prince Edward - I got letters from all of them congratulating me and absolutely nothing from New Zealand - nothing. It's sort of astounding in some ways I thought.

I don't know because the thing is when somebody gets something a prize or they get a first, it's celebrated, but this one seems to sort of slip everybody by and yet in England it was just major, major.

JM: The Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation. You had a vision. Can you tell us again what vision was, and what it's becoming?

KTK: The vision was when I would die, I would leave money to the foundation, but someone said to me it was better if I stayed alive and worked at the foundation, which I started to do and my dream was to have, as I had had a wonderful career for a very long time, my dream was for a New Zealander and in particular a Māori to have the same career as I had experienced.

A number of talented singers have emerged from the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation and are now flourishing on the international stage, Dame Kiri says.

KTK: We've got Thomas Atkins who's at Covent Garden's Young People programme, Filipe Manu who's now joining Covent Garden, James Ielou who's going to be at Manchester - he's our bass, Julien Van Mellaerts who's going to be singing in Salzburg with Andre Schiff - which is absolutely wonderful, Natasha Wilson is in America, Edward Laurenson, Bianca Andrew is in Frankfurt, Loise Alder who's British she's in Frankfurt and Anthony Schneider will join Frankfurt and at Covent Garden Phillip Rhodes will be coming back to sing the toreador in Carmen.

So that's just a small list of what major successes we've got and It's absolutely breath taking, sometimes when I look at them and I think, no just let them enjoy the moment because it's all about them - all I care about are those students and how well they do.

I saw some [students] yesterday and I think they want to head off to England and I was trying to give them a little bit of advice, what I want them to do is not in the beginning make mistakes, if you make the mistakes when you arrive over in England, you never seem to get out of the first mistake, so trying to guide them along making their choices is important.

JM: What mistakes?

KTK: More often than not doing too much; accepting too many silly things and tiring themselves out, that's one thing, they also make mistakes by singing the wrong music, sometimes they make a mistake by sticking with a singing teacher that really they should be moving away from.

Jim Mora with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

Jim Mora with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Photo: RNZ/Dave Campbell

JM: Is there an excitement still as you are about to hear a new voice? Do you always hope to hear the makings of a great one?

KTK: Yes, but it's a slow process, these things take time, they cook very slowly, but it's not as if we're producing dozens, if we produce one good one a year we're very lucky because it's a very small boutiquey type foundation I have.

But we're very specialised in that we watch, we hold on to them for as long as they want, and we care about them.

I work with them, not as much as I'd like, but I go to visit the performances this next month they will be coming down to the house for a weekend and we'll do an intense course.

JM: Are you getting enough financial support? It presumably doesn't run without money coming in?

KTK: We will always want support from the smallest donation to the larger amounts, we did a fundraising concert at The Wigmore Hall on the 14th December and it was so exciting for all my singers, I couldn't sing because I'm finished now I've said that's it, but we had Phillip Rose, Thomas Atkins and our lovely English girl Nadus Williams and then Bianca [Andrew] sang and Julien [Van Mellaerts] sang too and we raised around 50,000 pounds.

They all need help, there's always something, if they want to go to the continent to do auditions they can't afford the airfare , they can't afford the hotel.

Kiri Te Kanawa in costume

Kiri Te Kanawa in costume Photo: Rex Features

JM: The Foundation is a significant supporter of the Song Quest - you help with masterclasses? What do the singers learn at these?

KTK: Yesterday I listened to three singers really, really beautiful, beautiful boys, lovely behaviour, it was just so delicious to just be there, they were just so special and I know they'd be accepted over in England so well.

But it's just a matter of listening to them, advising them, telling them where parts could be looked at and yesterday one in particular I just said 'if you sang it now in English you would understand that you just don't run through a recitative like that.'

'Sing it in English then you'll understand where the stops are, where you take your time with it.'

But it's just advice you know?

And then advice about where they would study things like that … they never ask enough questions for my feelings, I'd love them to ask a lot more questions but we can give out as much information as we can.

The singers that emerge from the Foundation need considerable financial support to develop their careers, Dame Kiri says.

After the concert the other night we were given a cheque, it just arrived from someone for 10,000 pound,  just like that and that's one year's scholarship for a student, so that's their fees

Then you've got to think of living costs - the living costs are another 10,000 pounds.

Students also get guidance she says, even those that decide singing is not for them.

KTK: If decide they're going to give it up, we would try and guide them into another type of work, we have enough people of expertise in our group, and we can find others as well, to help them find a new path and that's important to never desert them ever.

I never got this when I was studying, I never got any of it, but that doesn't mean to say that I missed out, not at all, I was guided well, but I never got any of what we're doing in the Foundation….what we didn't have, let's make sure that they have.

Dame Kiri puts her own money into the foundation as well, she says.

KTK: Because I can't be asking people for money if I’m not putting my own money into it. I'm not highly, highly rich but I can afford to do some things and help young people.

I'm treated as a toughie, and you had to be tough in this world for the career that I had, you couldn't be a wilting lily at all you had to really stand up for yourself, but in all of it I can be strong for the students as well.

JM: When you decided to stop singing after that night in Ballarat a couple of years ago, you said 'I don't want to hear my voice. It is in the past. When I'm teaching young singers and hearing beautiful young fresh voices, I don't want to put my voice next to theirs.' Knowing when it is time, for you at least, because people were still very happy to hear you sing, knowing when it is time is hard, I imagine?

KTK: With 'O Mio Babbino Caro' I could not sing like that ever, so we leave it to go on to the recording so that it sits there for ever, it stays as young as it is, because if I sang it today, I wouldn't like what I heard.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa - no intention of retiring.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in 2014 Photo: AFP