The country's greatest international opera star, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, flew into Whanganui yesterday to spend four days at the New Zealand Opera School.

This is the first time Dame Kiri has been to Whanganui.

She is going to teach at the Collegiate-based school, which is now in its 22nd year.

The Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation finances overseas tutors who attend the school, which runs for 10 to 14 days each year. The foundation was created by Dame Kiri in 2004 and is dedicated to assisting young New Zealand singers.

Kiri Te Kanawa with opera school founder and executive chairman Donald Trott on her arrival. Photo / Stuart Munro
Kiri Te Kanawa with opera school founder and executive chairman Donald Trott on her arrival. Photo / Stuart Munro

Arriving by air from Auckland, Dame Kiri was greeted by opera school founder and executive chairman Donald Trott.

Mr Trott said it was a great privilege to have Dame Kiri at the school for four days.

"It's a real coup, and we're very proud indeed.

"We are delighted to be hosting Dame Kiri; she is an inspiration to so many singers throughout the world."

The iconic acclaimed singer and one of the world's leading tutors will take a closed masterclass with all 20 students.

The masterclass with Dame Kiri is a first for the school.

Dame Kiri will also appear in a ticketed public In Conversation event on Friday as part of the celebrated Opera Week.

With a career spanning more than 50 years, one of her most talked-about performances lately was on the popular British drama Downton Abbey.

She told the Chronicle playing the great Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba on the award-winning BBC series had been quite a different experience for her.

Even though she was accustomed to television cameras, this was a scripted drama.

"There were positions to learn, 'second takes' for close-ups, and what lasts 10 minutes on screen can easily take all day to film ... an opera is never like that. But it was an exciting experience, and made comfortable by the friendliness of the cast.

"I can assure everyone that Dame Maggie Smith is charming and down-to-earth - absolutely nothing like a snooty Dowager Countess."

Making a comparison with her own success, she said young opera singers trying to advance their careers in the international opera world today have it far tougher.

"It was never easy, and now it's getting harder. Opera as entertainment now has far more competition than a century ago - television, rock concerts, blockbuster movies are all competing for the audience dollar," Dame Kiri said.

"Increasingly, there are comparatively few roles 'open' for even the most talented classical singers. Plus the increasing tightening-up of working across foreign borders makes an 'international' career very difficult to achieve. Even singers from the British Commonwealth countries have very severe restrictions about being employed in Britain."

She said students most frequently asked how she prepared emotionally for an opera character.

"Anyone in any kind of theatre has to start by studying how the script depicts the character and then follow the director's way of showcasing that character and interactions with all the others. Opera has an added ingredient, music, which gives a further dimension. Concentrating on the music helps a performer in opera round out the character and bring it to life."

And she says while productions may change from era to era, the music remains.

"Though anything is the limit, now, with multiple projections, effects by technology, and way-out costuming, the music remains sacrosanct.

"And that's why most people go to opera. So as long as the eye-filling 'modern' production keeps the music as the number one priority, then there's room for both styles," she said.