ACCLAIMED SOPRANO Kiri Te Kanawa LOOKS BACK ON HER DECADES OF SUCCESS AND TO HER BRIGHT FUTURE
Acclaimed soprano Kiri Te Kanawa looks back on her brilliant operatic career and discusses her future
Aworld-renowned soprano for whom success came quickly after her opera debut in the mid1960s, Kiri Te Kanawa has received honours from the UK, Australia and her native New Zealand, and has performed with national operas all over the world. Last year, she appeared on the television series Downton Abbey, playing celebrated Australian soprano Nellie Melba. After singing for more than 50 years, Te Kanawa is focusing her attention on charitable and educational efforts, such as the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation she established in 2004, which is dedicated to providing financial support and advice to talented young New Zealanders with aspirations for a career in music.
Despite bidding farewell to regular opera singing on the global stage, she continues to give special performances. On October 27, in celebration of her 70th birthday, Te Kanawa is coming to Hong Kong to perform at a benefit for the Women’s Foundation at the Four Seasons at 6.30pm. The one-hour performance will be followed by a four-course dinner with wine pairing. Twelve-person tables range from HK$78,000–88,000. For more information, visit
In such a long, fruitful career, what have been your most memorable performances?
I suppose the whole of my life has been that, right from way back, from ’66. Every performance I did, every first night, every opera house I’d sing in, was a massive highlight. Each performance was like a building block for my entire career.
How has the opera world changed over your career?
I think there are fewer places for opera singers now. Opera houses have young people’s programmes, but some of the teaching isn’t as good as it should be, so there are a lot of singers who don’t do as well as they should. I think it’s very difficult to explain why. I’m finding that there are many good American singers because the teaching is much better in America. It wasn’t always like that.
Do you find opera audiences are still enthusiastic?
Yes and no. In London, the opera houses are full every night, which is wonderfully encouraging. But the Metropolitan Opera House in New York is not enjoying that so much.
Why did you decide to start the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation?
I think it was a wise decision to do what I’ve done, because we have found that there are singers who need help—especially in New Zealand, where there are no scholarships that local students can can apply for, so I thought I’d set up a foundation that can help new singers.
We’ve started seeing some significant successes for the students who we’ve already helped. The hope is to provide a more indepth education for singers before they leave New Zealand, and have them better trained when they arrive in the other countries they choose to go to. That’s my aim at the moment.
Are there any other charitable efforts you’re involved with?
I’m a patron to the Cardiff Singer of the World, which is now selecting singers for the competition next June. I’ve been involved with that for the last six years. And as I’m a patron I’m very involved with what’s going on— the choice of singers, what’s happening in the competition and how it’s rejuvenated itself, because it’s been going on for 30 years.
Are there any opera singers you particularly admired?
Joan Sutherland was a world-famous opera singer who came from Australia, and there was Joan Hammond and Nellie Melba before her. They were world famous for many years and their fame remains. We all have heroes in the South Pacific area. And, of course, we follow our heroes. Joan Sutherland was mine. That’s what I think a lot of people are doing now, they’re following their hero, which is me.
What are your plans now that you’ve retired from the stage?
I never mention the word “retired”— the press use it a lot because it’s convenient, but I know that I’ll never retire. Retiring is when you don’t do any music, when it’s not your job anymore. And that’s not what I intend to do—i intend to continue doing exactly what I’ve been doing, just without certain elements. I think I just poisoned the word retirement! In March I was at the Royal Opera House and I did an aria in an opera. I might not do that again, or I might do it in another two years, I don’t know. If I’m asked and I’m capable, I might do it. But you certainly don’t sing the major operas like you used to; those are for the younger generations, not for a 70-year-old or a 70-year-old’s voice.
What are your main passions these days?
I focus a lot of time on my foundation and I’ve decided to take up painting, so I now take lessons and I’m going to try and get into watercolours. I have many things to do in New Zealand as well—i spend a lot more time down there, looking for students who need help and advice, trying to encourage them and trying to encourage companies to look after them, to train them well.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming singers?
I think finding a good singing teacher is the most important thing of all. And also, if the time comes, knowing whether your career is going to work or not. I’ve said it a thousand times to students—you train to be a doctor, you go to medical school, and you come out being a doctor. But in our job you can go and train for 20 years and still not be a singer. That’s the difficult thing in the world that I’ve chosen and the world that a lot of these young people have chosen. I try to get the students to make decisions for themselves— make the wise decision for their own career.
curtain call Kiri Te Kanawa ( centre left) takes a bow with co- stars Juan Diego Floréz and Patrizia Ciofi at the end of a performance of Donizetti’s Lafilledurégiment
lofty goals Te Kanawa as the Duchess of Crackenthorpe in Laurent Pelly’s production of Lafille durégiment at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, earlier this year