Kiri Te Kanawa

Kiri Te Kanawa: “It’s coming from your heart”

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Short Profile

Name: Dame Kiri Jeanette Claire Te Kanawa
DOB: 6 March 1944
Place of birth: Gisborne, New Zealand
Occupation: Opera singer

Ms. Te Kanawa, was there still a thrill for you in performing on stage, even after over 50 years as an opera singer?

Oh, I was fulfilled each and every time I performed because my life everything was just so lucky, coming from the very humble beginnings that I started off with. Of course, there was always that moment on stage of, “Oh, God, it’s now!” (Laughs) You know, it was sort of the dawn coming up and boom, you're here, you're on. I would always have to remind myself, “Don't run off! Don’t go backwards.” That's the most important: don't disappear.

And now that you’re retired, what are you doing to find that same thrill these days?

I don't need it! These days, the thrill comes from the young singers that I mentor with my foundation — I'm about to go and see them in a couple of weeks time, and we're going to have a weekend of singing, and just talking about singing. So I don't need the thrill anymore, I just need the satisfaction of seeing that they're doing well. That's all I care about is simply seeing them reach their best potential. I'm now 78, and I’m spending more time with my grandson, and doing that part of life… We've got lots and lots of things going on, so I don't need that buzz anymore.

“If your heart’s not in it, if you’re not doing something you love, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Thinking back to your first awareness of opera, did you feel that buzz right away? Was it love at first listen, so to speak?

Well, the quick answer is yes. From my very, very early days in New Zealand, I only saw Porgy and Bess once, which I just adored, and then I saw Don Giovanni, and I fell in love with that, too. During that time, Leonard Bernstein had created and composed West Side Story. So you know, all those different things came into my life. We saw many musicals and beautiful shows.

Was there much of a scene in New Zealand? It’s not exactly the first place that comes to mind in terms of opera.

That’s a good question, actually. It’s such a small country. I tend to compare ourselves with Iceland because we are so remote. But the enthusiasm of the New Zealanders, it’s extraordinary! And there are very many churchgoing singers in our country, Samoans, Tongans, there’s also Maori… And the major body of our singing talent comes through there, because they all sing, it's all down to speech and music. So of course, it will translate. But with opera, it was a little different. We didn't have very much access to it, we didn't have television… But we had people like Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge who came out to perform, and that was mega for all of us. I remember just being astounded. And then when it came to actually performing, that’s when the work starts.

I’m thinking of my own experience playing the piano — I didn’t like the actual work and taking lessons, so I ended up quitting early on. But I do regret it now and wish I’d stuck with it.

I think you've probably done the right thing because if your heart's not in it, if you're not doing something you love, you're not going to get anywhere. Right at the beginning, that’s when you have the do or die moment. You have to do something that you love and you're passionate about. I've done that for over 54 years, and my passion for it still remained — and it still does.

What do you mean by a do or die moment?

I guess for me it’s when I went over to England in 1966 to study opera, I remember thinking, “I don't know what I'm going to do. Am I going to get anywhere? Who's going to want me? Am I good enough?” All those different sorts of terrible emotions… And then, through some sort of lucky channel you get yourself into, you just push forward. So of course, when I got to England, I went to a very good school, the London Opera Centre, and although I wasn't the greatest student, I somehow became the best.

Dame Kiri sings Beim Schlafengehen by Richard Strauss, 1990.

Apparently one of your teachers, the great opera conductor James Robertson, once said that you although you lacked singing technique, you had a gift for captivating audiences.

I think that’s probably true. So I had to find a singing teacher who was going to push me further. It took a couple of years to find those kinds of teachers, like James and also Colin Davis, who was a wonderful conductor. He was very good to me. You know, with opera, it takes a team to make one person. It doesn't take just you, you can't just do it on your own. It's not possible. It takes a team because, for instance, you can play the piano in a solo room and play alone for many, many hours. But then you have to get out there and perform and sell records — how do you get out there? You can’t just walk out in the street and say, “I'm a pianist, I'm an artist.” You need somebody to tell your story.

But of course, some of it does come down to just you and your natural talent.

Of course, I mean, I could sing in tune which is important. I had a good ear, that's another one of my talents. I was like a sponge I could suck all the information in and then the rest you put it down to hard work.

What would you say had the biggest impact on your growth as a singer?

I think the strength of the voice is in some people, and not in others. Personally, my skills were never relaxed, so to speak, I would always always have singing lessons, I would always always have coaching, I'd always have people who would tell me when things were going right or wrong. I always kept my voice in great shape. In terms of training, nothing changed from the student days except I was far more advanced. You have to stay in your work. I never really stopped training.

It sounds like although it was grueling, it was worth it because you loved it so much.

Well, there was no choice. You were on that road, you know, you're on the train and it never stopped. But you’re right that we never wanted to stop. We just wanted to make sure we did better. Opera houses also required you to be extremely, extremely good. You were never allowed to do a second rate performance ever, that was not possible. If you ever did a second rate performance, there were 10 people behind you ready to take your place. So when you’re singing opera, you absolutely have to be giving your entire self every night. It's coming from your heart. We’re creating a story. If the message goes out, and the people receive it, and they like it, then you know you've done the right job. Giving is what it's all about.