The Age of Dame Kiri

The Age of Dame Kiri

By: Greg Bruce
Feature Writer, NZ Herald

She won't sing at the concert in 11 days time when the Aotea Centre's theatre is renamed in her honour, nor will she ever again sing in future at any other theatre, nor anywhere else in public, nor in private. She will not even sing, she says, in the shower. She no longer wants to hear the voice that once turned an entire generation of opera lovers to quivering, mawkish, excessively-adjectival mush. She can't bear it. The thing most responsible for bringing her fame and wealth and adoration is gone forever.

She says she doesn't miss it and it doesn't bother her, and she says those things forcefully, but it's hard to believe them, because imagine if you once owned something that made the world fall in love with you, and you owned it for decades, then you lost it and knew it was never coming back.

A gala concert in the presence of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Aotea Centre, Wednesday November 20, 7.30pm-10pm. Tickets from ticketmaster.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa reflects on the renaming of the ASB Aotea Centre

She says, "It's a strange thing because it's exactly what I thought I would be worried about but I haven't been because I thought, 'Well I've done what I needed to do. I've done everything I needed to do.'"

She says it's a relief to be free of the pressure to, for example, avoid air conditioning, cold winds, any sort of chill on her back, to avoid shaking hands or physical contact, to constantly be careful about what she eats, to be constantly on high alert for anything that could affect her voice. "Everything was a pressure," she says.

She told the BBC in 2017, "I don't want to hear it anymore because it was good. It was beautiful. I had a beautiful voice, but now at 75 years of age, if I listen to it again it's not like it was at 35, 40. It's nothing like it."

She no longer even wants to talk about the life she led when she had that voice. I know that because she tells me, more than once, during our interview: "Be nice!" she says. "Don't go to the old-fashioned, 45-50 years ago."

She says, "Be nice" on at least four separate occasions, sometimes in a mock-threatening manner, her voice dropping a precisely modulated amount to a tone of pure, distilled, intimidatory authority.

"Be nice!" she says. "They'll come and get you. They know where your family are."

Journalists have often alluded, in articles like this one, to her fierce reputation. About this, she says: "They're fearful of me. I get a lot of that." 

"Why is that?" I ask.

"I've seen so much negative stuff. So I just put them at ease by telling them, 'Be nice!'"

I ask about the time John Copley, the producer of her breakout performance in 1971's The Marriage of Figaro, said he initially thought of her as, "A great trial, very boring girl, very lazy."

"Yeah," she replies, "but you're going back 45 years. You have to modernise things."

She goes on: "Don't go too much into the backlog of all the stuff. It's rather nice if you do something rather fresh because I'm 75 now and things have happened in the last two or three years that have been quite amazing."

The amazing things are the emergence and appearance on important stages around the world of the young New Zealand singers she has mentored and supported through her eponymous foundation, which she started in 2004. The foundation is the main reason she's doing this interview, or any interviews, because with the publicity comes the prospect of donations. It's a trade-off she has to make because opera is not the force it was when she was its global face in the 70s and 80s, and money isn't exactly flushing itself into its coffers.

Anyway, that's enough of the present. Let's now go into the backlog of all the stuff.

Imagine how often she's been forced to pore over her storied life. There have been three This is Your Lifes (2xNZ, 1xUK), thousands of media interviews like this one, endless public appearances, speeches, Christmas barbecues with friends and acquaintances. In 1990, Britain's favourite intellectual arts-based broadcaster Melvyn Bragg spent a year following her around the world in order to make a feature-length documentary about her life.

How dull and empty to be made once again to look back over this over-examined life, to once again be forced to talk about making it to Covent Garden (the All Blacks of the opera world) in her late 20s (the late teens of the opera world) and of performing at 1981's royal wedding (the royal wedding of the opera world).

Nevertheless: Her breakthrough was in 1971, at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, one of the world's great opera houses, when she sang one of the most famous and challenging roles in opera, the role of Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro, at which point she became, overnight, one of opera's biggest stars.

The review by Financial Times critic Andrew Porter was indicative: "Such a Countess Almaviva as I have never heard before."

In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, she described the aftermath: "Suddenly, you've got agents and jobs, and you're doing this and doing that. You're wanted everywhere. And there's interviews and newspapers. And the Met's calling and Covent Garden is booking you again."

She is a product of her time, which began in 1944, when she was born to parents she never speaks about, and was soon after offered for adoption to a family who initially rejected her because the man who would become her father - Tom Te Kanawa - wanted a son. The woman who would become her mother, Nell, accepted her on the second offering a few weeks later when Tom was out.

She trained remorselessly during and after her school years, under legendary Auckland-based teacher Sister Mary Leo. As a teenager, she sang Ave Maria late at night in grimy Auckland nightclubs, apparently bringing hardened old boozers to tears, then she won big-time, prestigious singing competitions like the Mobil Song Quest and Sun Aria here and in Australia, and in 1965 she left for the United Kingdom already very famous in New Zealand, with a level of success described by the also-famous Max Cryer as "extraordinary and unprecedented".

Two years later, she returned for her wedding in Parnell where she was mobbed by the public outside the church. Woman's Weekly called it the wedding of the year.

Back in England, her international star began to rise. When she first auditioned for the role of the Countess at Covent Garden, the conductor, Colin Davis couldn't believe his ears: "I remember the first time I saw you," he told her later on This is Your Life, "We hadn't met, actually, and I thought that was the most beautiful voice I'd ever heard in my life." Sir Georg Solti, the musical director at Covent Garden said in a later television documentary, "I hear hundreds of people in a year: piano players, violinists - really hundreds - and maybe once or twice a year I sit up. And that was Kiri's audition."

This is the sort of effusive, high-level outpouring of adulation that would come to mark her career and help make her one of this country's most internationally famous people.

From 1971 on, it was basically gravy. She travelled the world, singing at the great opera houses of Europe and beyond. She sang Let the Bright Seraphim at Westminster Abbey during Charles and Diana's "Wedding of the Century" (600 million viewers. Prince Charles: "My favourite soprano", "Glorious voice", "One of her greatest fans"), she was made a Dame the next year, took the role of Maria in Leonard Bernstein's 1984 recording of his hit musical West Side Story, sang Now is the Hour at the Commonwealth Games Closing Ceremony in 1990, sang the Rugby World Cup anthem World in Union on the UK's Top of the Pops in 1991, and was chosen to lead the singing of Rule Britannia at the Last Night of the Proms in 1992.

There have been controversies, mostly foot-in-mouth stuff, the most memorable being in the early 2000s when she criticised the genre known as "popera" and its leading local exponent, then-darling of the nation Hayley Westenra. She says now she wasn't criticising the people or even the genre, but just pointing out that because they sing with microphones, which she trained for years to do without, they should not be compared to her.

There have been difficulties: her long marriage to Desmond Park, with whom she had two adopted children, ended in the late 90s and shortly after that she withdrew from a newly forged reunion with her half brother when a story about it was leaked to the media.

But she has survived and thrived and opera will probably never again produce another star like her, not least because it doesn't have the cultural grip it once did. For example, the man The Times of London called "the most famous journalist of his day", Bernard Levin, was so in thrall to her that he once flew [19,000km] to appear for about 35 seconds on one of her This is Your Lifes.

"I've flown 12,000 miles to say this to you, darling," he gushed, sitting across from her and Bob Parker on a makeshift stage somewhere in Auckland. "I saw your international career begin and I have followed it ever since. And for all the greatness of your singing, and there aren't half a dozen singers in history to touch it, the wonderful thing about you is you demonstrate with every word and every note and every smile that it is not necessary for greatness to be accompanied by vanity and pomposity and selfishness. [Sustained audience applause.] And that's only one of the reasons I love you."

The Guardian's Martin Kettle wrote in 2007: "To the generation before mine of male heterosexual opera lovers, Kiri Te Kanawa seems to have been simply beyond criticism." Kettle said Levin "would willingly have fought a duel with anyone rash enough not to rhapsodise sufficiently about the woman on whom he doted in print as his 'Kiri-bird'".

Of the spell she seemed to cast on people, Dame Kiri now says: "You cast a spell for people who want to have a spell cast. But there are other people who don't want it at all. The people who want the spell, it's fine - I give into it."

She was in control of this interview long before I sat down to have her tell me what we should and shouldn't talk about. Two months ahead of time, her people had asked a publicist to ask me if 9.30am on a Sunday would work. Because I have three small children and a long-suffering wife, I suggested a weekday, but the publicist said it had to be Sunday, which made me wonder why they asked in the first place.

On the appointed Sunday, before she started telling me to be nice, she told me where to sit. After we started talking, she happily and elegantly deflected, changed the subject or otherwise comfortably dodged questions.

At Whanganui Opera School in 2016. Photo / Bevan Conley, Wanganui Chronicle

Broadcaster Paul Holmes once put it to her, on camera, that she had been known to sometimes "do your scone a bit". At this, she grabbed him, kissed him aggressively on the mouth and continued to kiss him while she pushed him over and lay on top of him.

Talking about the kiss in a televised interview with Alison Mau after Holmes' death, she said, "I used to do that a bit when I wanted to shut them up." When questioned about the kiss now, she claims to not remember it.

About Holmes, she told Mau: "You could trust him. If you said, 'Don't go down that line of questioning for me, I don't want to do that,' he would do that, and you can't ask many journalists to do that."

Ahead of the photoshoot for this article, her people had told us via email, "Dame Kiri has 30 minutes set aside for the filming in the auditorium – at the very latest (depending on how her schedule is running on the day) you will be wrapped by 1.30pm." One of the more obvious meanings of this extraordinarily vague non-agreement was: "You are not in charge."

On the day, as foreshadowed, she cut the shoot short, giving as the reason a meeting with her lawyer. She spent much of the shoot reminding us to hurry.

During our interview the day before, I had told her she seemed like a strong person. She said: "I am strong. No, there's no doubt I am strong, but there are moments of weakness. You fall down, you think, 'Oh!' But you have to be strong for other people." Asked why she thought that, she said: "I think I've been expected to be." She didn't elaborate.

In the 1990 documentary with Melvyn Bragg, she said: "I go on and carry on because I daren't stop. I've got to give the 100 per cent that I think is expected of me. I was not given much of a chance at birth but by gosh I was going to give it everything I had until the time comes that I can't do it anymore."

When I ask what she misses most about her parents, she replies: "Just showing them what they've achieved, what they gave me from nothing to give me the life that I've got. Just to let them see that it worked."

In 1983, she appeared at two homecoming concerts, which raised nearly half a million dollars for the campaign to build the Aotea Centre. She says now: "I was there at the beginning. I did raise the first half-million, which turned into a million once it was invested and I was very thrilled to do that because I thought it's what we needed - and we've got it.

"It might not be totally ideal but I don't care. We've got a theatre that works and is well used, which is nice. And now to be given the honour of it being called the Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, I think it is just fantastic. I can't imagine it. It sort of came out of the blue for me."

For somebody so thoroughly public, one of the most famous living New Zealanders, we know extraordinarily little about her private life. She makes clear over and over in interviews like this that it's off limits. Although publishers have chased her for years, she's never written a book. Tough questions from otherwise-compliant journalists are met with aggressive on-camera kisses. There's been one biography, published in 1982, reviewed as followed by Kirkus: "Highly premature, thoroughly bland."

What she would presumably like to talk about in every interview is opera and nothing but opera. She has described singing as the reason she was born. Towards the end of our interview, I asked her: "Why do you think opera matters?"

She replied: "Because I do it, I suppose."

The perfect pitch might have gone, but the control never has.

A gala concert in the presence of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Aotea Centre, Wednesday November 20, 7.30pm-10pm. Tickets from ticketmaster.

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