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If you like Kiri Te Kanawa's story, you might also like:
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Kiri Te Kanawa
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Kiri Te Kanawa Interview

Beloved Opera Singer

April 9, 2008
The Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

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  Kiri Te Kanawa

When were you first drawn to opera? Was it when you were starting out in New Zealand, before you went to England?

Kiri Te Kanawa: It was when I was singing in New Zealand, from 14 years of age, until I left at age 21.

I saw Don Giovanni and I saw a couple of other operas. I saw Porgy and Bess, which I consider a complete opera. And I just completely and utterly fell in love with it. And then, of course, I started singing operatic arias, just small ones. But I really never sang in an opera until I sang in England, and I was in a small sort of excerpts from opera in the London Opera Center. That's the college I studied at. But I really wasn't singing opera. Because I didn't think I knew how to do it until I got to England. And then I started to really concentrate on it very seriously, and of course, it is the only thing for me.

You started training as a mezzo soprano. When did you make the leap to soprano?

Kiri Te Kanawa: I don't think there was a leap. I think it just was a natural progression. I'd looked after my voice for such a long time and always sang within the area I thought my voice could sing, the scale of my voice. And then when I came to England, I thought it was England that did it, or the air that did it. But in actual fact, it was just the natural progression. My voice just went up. And it was wonderful.

Did someone hear it and tell you? Or did you discover it yourself?

Kiri Te Kanawa: No, I was singing Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte, and Richard Bonynge, Joan Sutherland's husband, came to our college and gave a master class, which was absolutely wonderful. And I was so thrilled by this. And I thought, "Gosh, just to work with this wonderful man!" And he said, "You're not a mezzo." And he looked at me and he said, "You're a soprano." And I thought, "Oh yeah, tell me another story." And I just continued as I did. Then, of course, I found my wonderful singing teacher, Vera Rozsa. And from that point on, I just started working on my voice very carefully and it just went up. It just naturally went up. I never knew I had a top C or a top D or anything like that. I hardly ever, ever sing them. But when I want them, hopefully they're there. I'm not sure top D is there right now, but certainly top C and top C sharp.

What were your first roles with the Royal Opera at Covent Garden?

Kiri Te Kanawa: I sang with Boris Christoff in Boris Godunov as Xenia. She's the daughter of the Tsar. That was my first role there, along with being a flower maiden in Parsifal. Then, of course, I went to Vienna and sang with Georg Solti and I recorded with him.

It's a big leap from flower maiden to the Countess in Marriage of Figaro. How did that come about?

Kiri Te Kanawa: Well, I was there to study. They brought me to Covent Garden very, very, very early, and I was to study the Countess for a whole year.

Kiri Te Kanawa Interview Photo
What was your status in the company at that time?

Kiri Te Kanawa: They called us "Junior Principals," which is a nice title actually. So I studied the Countess. And I was singing Xenia and the flower maiden. There's all sorts of other little things going on. Singing bits and pieces of concerts. But the most amazing thing is that I learned Figaro in English. They made me learn it in English first, then they sent me off to Santa Fe, New Mexico to sing it in English. And in Santa Fe, I sang with Frederica von Stade. It was her first Cherubino and my first Countess. Then I came back to Covent Garden and had to re-learn it in Italian. How's that? My head was going "Gong, gong, gong!"

How much time did you have to re-learn the role, in between Santa Fe and Covent Garden?

Kiri Te Kanawa: From the beginning of learning it in English to finally singing it in Italian was about two years. It could have been shorter actually. It might have been eighteen months.

Tell us about your debut as the Countess in Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden, in December 1971. Did you have a feeling this was going to be a very big night for you?

Kiri Te Kanawa: No, no. Not at all. I knew that things were working up to it. But you know, when you're in it, you're in sort of a mess, because there's the music, there's the coaching, there's the instruction, there's the language, there's the stage movements, the conductor. And then you've got everybody else coming. You've got agents, you've got singing teachers. You've got this whole world, a circus. You feel as though your brain is going to break, and I think I'm just going to go crazy. I just went into my typical South Pacific, Polynesian mode. I just wouldn't take any notice of it. I just sort of let it all fly over me. That's the only way I could cope with it. There's only so much you can take in in a day. I was coming in from the country. My journey was an hour and a half. I was working long hours, so I could only take in so much.

You were pretty well prepared. You'd done the role before, albeit in English.

Kiri Te Kanawa: Yes.

I'd actually done the Countess, which was very important. I've actually done it on stage, yes, with a director. Yes, I worked for several weeks in Santa Fe, which was a wonderful experience. I mean, it was very precious, that experience. I look back and always remember that glorious time. That gave me the strength to do the Covent Garden one. Because I'd done it. I'd been there. And yet, I was in a more superior production of course. Everything was just super-super-duper. It was really fantastic.

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That night in December of 1971, when you first sang the Countess at Covent Garden, did you realize immediately what a big deal this was for your career?

Kiri Te Kanawa: No. I don't think I thought about that until it really took off. 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. And then Glyndebourne suddenly wants you. Once again, this melee, and I just went into my little spot of just going into cuckooland and not taking too much notice of it for awhile. And then you can cope with it. There was a time when I couldn't cope a couple of years later. I just overdid everything and decided to take a huge break because it was all too much.

When you're in that kind of demand and you're fairly new in your career, it must be hard to say no to very prestigious invitations.

Kiri Te Kanawa: I think it's harder today. It's harder today to say no, because there's less around. And there are a lot more singers who will agree to do anything and sometimes not be capable of doing it. That's what I'm more worried about, the singers who do a job, an opera, performance of whatever type, and then after the performance, they've basically killed their voice off. That's what I'm more worried about today.

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