Operatic legend Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has an appeal that crosses the boundaries of music

Sep. 23, 2011 | 2 Comments In the Star-Advertiser Friday Print Edition

You know you’re a superstar when your name is co-opted to try to fill a concert hall. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, one of the finest opera singers in the past half century, has been there.

“I used to see my name advertised in certain countries that I’d be singing a role, but I’d never, ever booked for it,” she said.

“They put my name there because they knew it would sell the tickets. It happened on many occasions.”

Opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa will perform Thursday evening at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. —Courtesy Photo

Rest assured, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is indeed coming to Hawaii — unless the woman we spoke to by phone, speaking a Queen’s English that sounded as rich and pure as a bell, was doing an uncanny impression. She will be at Blaisdell Concert Hall on Thursday, and at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center on Saturday.

Fans of nonoperatic singing needn’t worry about enjoying her repertoire, since Grammy winners in both opera and Broadway music are among her 70-plus recordings. Her signature song, Puccini’s heart-wrenching “O mio babbino caro,” was used on a champagne commercial and in the film “Room with a View.”

“I can always change my program if I feel my classical program is too much,” she said. “My first choice of course is singing classical, which I love, because I just love perfecting the art. The popular, or the lighter (music), I do as a relaxation. So I suppose that’s the two temperaments of how you go through it: the classical one, you really have to concentrate, and the other one you can relax.”

TALKING with Te Kanawa can be similarly relaxing and passionately serious. She speaks with great pride of her career, with a resume that lists starring roles in grand performance venues from Milan and London to New York and Sydney.


With pianist Terence Dennis

Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Cost: $75-$125

Info: Blaisdellcenter.com

Note: Te Kanawa performs Oct. 1 at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. Tickets are $75-$125. Visit mauiarts.org for information.

Her experiences include performing for a worldwide audience of 600 million, viewing the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Diana; and with all the great names in opera. She has honorary degrees from major musical institutions; titles of nobility. And yet she’s self-effacing enough that when asked what it was like to work with artists like the “three tenors,” Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras — whom she calls “the boys” — she said, “I think you should go and ask how it was to work with me!”

“As with all great and wonderful musicians and great, talented people, they’re so easy,” she said. “You don’t even have to think about it, because they’re doing their job, their part of it. I do my job, my part of it, and it all just gels like a little jigsaw puzzle. …

“At the time, you may see a bit of an ego appear, but in the end you just get down and do your job.”

“BELOVED” is a word that crops up often in descriptions of Te Kanawa, and indeed the sun never sets on a place where she isn’t respected and admired.

Her serene, almost regal appearance on stage captivates audiences. A critic for The Independent in London, where she first stormed the opera world in 1971 with her appearance as the Countess in “The Marriage of Figaro,” said she was an artist who “the sentimental British public takes to its heart.”

A New York Times critic said her voice has an “indefinable presence able to travel long distances with little apparent effort.”

In her homeland of New Zealand, she is revered as a legend, especially among the Maori people whose blood lines she claims. When I told some visiting Maori artists that I would be talking with Te Kanawa, they only half-jokingly said they considered it an honor to be interviewed by the same person who would be interviewing her.

She eagerly embraces those Maori roots, expressing delight upon learning that the University of Hawaii Warriors do the ha’a, a war chant derived from the Maori haka.

“I think it’s been wonderful because it’s something the Maori team, the rugby team, have done, way back as I can remember, and now it’s something that’s come to the fore,” she said.

TE KANAWA, now 67, no longer takes part in full-fledged opera productions, but she maintains a busy performance schedule. Aside from concerts and recitals, her main focus now is in identifying and mentoring the next generation of classical singers.

She founded the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation in New Zealand to help singers pursue careers in classical music and coaches young singers in London, New York and elsewhere when she gets the chance. She will be meeting privately with singers here.

“(My) career is well-earned, and I’m very proud of it,” she said. “That’s not to say that I’m above everyone else — I don’t ever feel like that — but it’s more the feeling of, ‘Gosh, I hope I can pass this on: the possibility of the dream, of reaching your dreams.'”

That dream, for Te Kanawa, started in boozy nightclubs in New Zealand, where the Catholic girls’ college student would appear as the closing act in a night’s entertainment.

“I sang for a lot of drunk people,” she said. “That was a sort of bring-your-own booze thing. This was over 45 years ago, and they would bring it in brown paper bags and put it under the table. And by the end of the evening, I would come in at midnight and start singing ‘Ave Maria’ and they would think ‘Oh my God, what’s happened here? I’ve gone to heaven and here comes the angel.'”

Under the tutelage of a nun at the college, she became a well-known television and cabaret star and won New Zealand’s top singing contest. That contest, plus some grant money, earned her a trip to London to study at the prestigious London Opera Centre in 1966.

“I was a bad student for a year, but then I shaped up,” she said. “There was a ‘serious talk,’ and then I had to discover that I should do something different than what I was doing.”

That propelled her on her way to a hugely successful career.

Her role in “Figaro” has remained an audience favorite over the decades, and she became especially noted for other lyric soprano roles of Mozart, as well as Richard Strauss, Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. And while some critics have raised issues with her repertoire, saying she might have tried “heavy” roles like Wagner, she herself has only one unfulfilled wish regarding her career.

“I used to get question after question: ‘What role would you most like to do?’

“I would say, ‘Every single role Luciano Pavarotti ever did,'” the diva said.

THE SINGER’S career paralleled a spectacular public rise in opera. Filmmakers like Franco Zeffirelli were filming operas, the term “opera chic” came into vogue, and it became a hip thing for people both young and old to attend.

“Now they say those were the Golden Years,” she said, “but if I’d known they were golden years I would have enjoyed them more.”

That hints at the dedication with which she pursued her career.

Te Kanawa has a reputation for being a plain-spoken person, as evidence by some comments she made deriding “Idol”-type singing contests. But fans of such shows should know she pulls no punches with regard to classical music either.

“I had a young student come the other day, she was singing Mozart, and I said, ‘Look, I’ve got to tell you, it’s not good, you sound awful.’ … I cannot tell a lie, it’s just not in me.”

Audiences should know that Te Kanawa will be in good spirits and genuinely happy to perform here. She plans to take a brief fishing vacation with mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade, her good friend since they debuted together in “Figaro,” before traveling to Hawaii.

” I love going to islands, they’re very interesting,” she said. “I’m really thrilled to be coming.”

—Steven Mark / smark@staradvertiser.com

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