Auckland appearance for our best known diva

By William Dart

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa takes to the Aotea stage on Thursday.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa takes to the Aotea stage on Thursday.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa ended her 2014 Auckland recital by firmly telling us that "the announcement of my retirement has been exaggerated.

True to her word, she takes the Aotea stage on Thursday, again with pianist Terence Dennis, to give us a selection of arias and songs that, two weeks away from the big night, is still a flexible entity.

"There'll be some Mozart, and a little bit of Handel," she tells me, musing on how nice it is to change the programme halfway through if she decides to do so.

"I'm 72 now and I've got to be careful how much I do."

The partnership with Dennis is special, in a word, "fabulous".

"He's so completely compliant it's wonderful," she enthuses, saying working with an accompanist "has got to be a relationship that you can feel.That's what it's all about. It's a pretty rare thing which you realise when you work with someone you don't know."

As for next week's recital, it's "a bit like putting together a little personal story.

"It's not just a story about anything. It begins with the music I like and then you hear my voice start to develop during the following sets. And at the end you don't have to have wham-bam songs but rather things that are simple.

"When I teach, I say to my students that everything you sing is a folksong. Whatever the piece may be, you can always simplify it down."

Her strategy is remarkably straightforward.

"Singing is all about communication and people liking what you do. It's not about trying to browbeat someone in a kind of educational way; I'm not like that. I just love to sing beautiful songs."

Whatever we do hear net week - flyers around town have added Vivaldi, Puccini, Canteloube, Jake Heggie and traditional folk songs to the musical bill of fare - it will be music close to the soprano's heart.

The triumphs of Kiri Te Kanawa are legend and indisputable, setting off with her 1971 breakthrough at Covent Garden, singing the Countess in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. I count myself extremely fortunate to have caught her playing another Countess, almost two decades later, when she headed a San Francisco cast of Richard Strauss' Capriccio.

Today, she talks of the Strauss role as a "simulating achievement, like running a race" describing the opera's big octet as "one of the most difficult challenges. You just count, count, count; it's not about singing."

And yet sing she did, and gloriously.

While Dame Kiri isn't tackling major operatic roles these days, as late as 2002 she surprised many by playing the heroine in Samuel Barber's 1958 opera Vanessa.

For noted American critic Tim Page, it was "a part that could have been written for her," graced with a performance that was "empathic and aristocratic, with a tone of purest cream."

These days, the soprano devotes much of her energy to supporting a new generation of singers through her Kiri Te Kanawa Trust. Yet she is the first to admit that a naturally beautiful voice is a rare thing, and young hopefuls have to be practical in their goals and ambitions.

"These singers are coming through in droves. When they make it, it's thrilling, but they can't all be the equivalent of a prima ballerina. Opportunities for success are rare," she counsels. "Some need to start thinking about chorus work, or perhaps not even singing, but working in stage management.

"This is a tough business, and it's supposed to be tough. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it."

What: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in Recital
Where & when: Aotea Centre, Thursday at 7.30pm

- NZ Herald

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