Feature News: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa brings her Marschallin back to life

Te Kanawa talks of her Met and Cologne performances and her worldwide teaching activities

13 July 2009

Kiri Te Kanawa The Dame's operatic silence seems to have come to an end. Kiri Te Kanawa, one of the most beloved opera stars of the last forty years, has confirmed in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times that she will appear at the New York Met and Oper Köln in 2010, finally marking her return to the opera stage after six years of absence.

After her performances in Samuel Barber's Vanessa at the Washington National Opera and at the Los Angeles Opera in 2004, Dame Kiri's appearances in opera houses have faded, and even her recitals have become less frequent. Intensely involved in the educative activities run by her Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation and in prestigious masterclasses all over the world, she seemed to have tacitly bid her adieu to opera houses. And yet, in a recent conversation with James C. Taylor published in the LA Times, Te Kanawa confirmed that she is ready to go back on stage.

First, it's the Met: she has agreed to perform the Duchess of Krakenthorpa, a speaking role in La fille du régiment, in February 2010. Then, in April 2010, she will take on one of her signature roles, the Marschallin, in two performances of Der Rosenkavalier during the 2009-10 season at Cologne.

Her appearances at the Met and in Cologne had actually already been announced (albeit barely noticed by the press); but her interview with the LA Times is revealing as regards Dame Kiri's take on her characters. During her conversation, she hinted at some intriguing features about her speaking role at the Met: 'it's not a singing role, but I will sing - that'll shock them'.

Her comments on the Cologne Opera's Rosenkavalier are also poignant. Te Kanawa has always had an affinity with this extremely demanding role, which she portrayed with such mastery that she became almost the model for any Marschallin to come. Referring to her Cologne appearance, she stated: 'It will be the last time, it really is, I know it is. The last time, yes'.

Te Kanawa is realistic about her capabilities and does not hide the fact that a career as a performer has now become challenging after over forty years spent on stage. And yet, her resources and talents are infinite, and she flirts with the possibility of new roles. She reveals that she is looking forward to collaborating with American composer Jake Heggie for a forthcoming masterclass. Heggie is one of the most renowned and prolific contemporary composers; he writes for artists such as Renée Fleming, Frederica con Stade, Joyce DiDonato and Bryn Terfel, often accompanying them in recitals. What is more, Heggie is famously adept at tailoring roles for his prestigious collaborators. And as the LA Times reports, Dame Kiri leaves room for speculation: '"I know my own limits of perfection”, she says firmly, but later smiles, "you never say never"'.

The interview with the LA Times preceded Dame Kiri's appearance at the Hollywood Bowl season-opening gala on 19 June, an event that represented a special evening for many reasons. Firstly, it marked the 10th anniversary of the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame, an institution conceived on behalf of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association in order to pay tribute to artists whose musical achievement is outstanding. In the past, the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame has awarded personalities as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Carlos Santana, André Watts, Plácido Domingo, John Mauceri, Liza Minnelli, Sir James Galway and B.B. King.

What made this night even more special was that Dame Kiri Te Kanawa herself was to be inducted to the Hall of Fame, joining this group of exceptional artists. That is not all: this opening night was conceived as a benefit concert: by the end of the evening, nearly $1 million had been raised for Music Matters, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music education programme, which serves more than 120,000 young people and teachers every year. This is a particularly well-suited goal for an artist such as Dame Kiri who has always demonstrated a special concern towards young artists.

Kiri Te KanawaThe induction ceremony was particularly touching, as Dame Kiri's long-standing colleague and friend Frederica von Stade was present to induct her to the Hall of Fame. To make the night even more special, Te Kanawa eventually performed Cilea's 'Io son l'umile ancella', Puccini's 'O mio babbino caro' and Gershwin's 'By Strauss', all backed by Wilkins and the HBO. Von Stade herself joined her friend in Mozart's 'Ah guarda sorella' from Così fan tutte in an entertaining performance. In the end, Te Kanawa offered the audience her rendition of Victor Herbert's ironic 'Art is calling for me'.

Te Kanawa is enthusiastic about her Hall of Fame induction. As the LA Times reports, she specifies that she does not feel that lifetime achievement awards could symbolically hint at the fact that her career is close to the curtain call. On the contrary, she believes that her present activities are very rewarding and she considers them as 'an extension […] and not an epilogue', as Taylor writes, paraphrasing Te Kanawa's words.

Dame Kiri admitted that her last twelve years have been tough and have drastically affected both her personal and professional life. Nonetheless, her self-analysis is lucid: 'I think there's been more reality in my life of late. I've had a lot of unfortunate things happen these last 12 years; I think it's only in the last three years that I've come out of this, this whatever it's called – I don't want to call it a black hole – that I've come to find my balance'.

She is not reticent to talk about her divorce either, being aware that as a public figure one must be ready to face the consequences of being under the spotlight. She confesses that during the years before her marriage collapsed she was drained by constant pressure: 'I was the workhorse because that's what I was made to do, not for anything other than the man I was living with. I was the workhorse, bringing in the money'.

Her return to performance was a way of escaping this troubled phase of her life. Giving up opera and concentrating on recitals was the strategy that she pursued – successfully, as she managed to re-acquire physical and mental balance. At that point, her career entered into a new ascending phase.

Together with focusing on her own artistic and personal potential, another source of energy for Dame Kiri has been nurturing new talents. She is concerned about the new generation of artists, who are too often drowning in what she refers to as the 'Lollypop World'. She fears that talented young people from the American Idol generation run the risk of having their aspirations killed and becoming servile to the show business' imperatives.

Kiri Te KanawaTo counter this problematic situation, Dame Kiri herself created a concrete antidote: the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation. Established in 2004, the mission of the Foundation is to assist promising New Zealand musicians, and help them develop their talents through financial and teaching support. This organization is now recognized as one of the most prominent in the musical world, and its international influence was cemented just recently thanks to the partnership with the Solti Accademia di Bel Canto, now called Solti Te Kanawa due precisely to the now permanent association with Dame Kiri's activities.

Te Kanawa had been important for the Solti Academy since its creation in 2005, when she acted as first visiting teacher. The reason for her decision to link officially her Foundation to its Italian counterpart is the admiration she has for the work of her European colleagues, who have managed to create a unique environment for the training of young artists. She talked of this partnership in an interview with Radio Rai 3 on 28 June 2009 from Castiglione della Pescaia, where the masterclasses take place: 'I had my own Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation. I've been pushing my own students down here to the Accademia Solti, and then last year they decided to call it Solti-Te Kanawa. I was very pleased to join them because we are now looking for the international supreme singers, the best quality that we can find in the world today of classically trained singers'.

Dame Kiri also explained that through her Foundation and through the Academy, she and her colleagues pursue artistic excellence and at the same time try to give their students 'the knowledge of what happens in the profession', as she puts it. This means not only vocal training, but also the awareness of how to deal with financial issues, with the travelling, and with opera houses. Masterclasses with legendary international singers such as José Carreras, Leo Nucci, Mirella Freni and Te Kanawa herself are a way to grasp the complexity of the music world.

This innovative approach blends perfectly with Dame Kiri's more traditional stand on vocal preparation: a solid technique is essential from the very beginning of any artist's education, she repeats in her recent Radio Rai 3 interview. When asked what she will try to hand down to her students, she has not doubt: 'to have the singers enjoy their career' and to teach them to keep their 'vocal health' in best possible shape.

Only a little more than one year ago, in May 2008, Dame Kiri was giving a masterclass at Guildhall in London. Dozens of musicians and music lovers attended, confirming once again that her popularity in the UK among both new and old generations is still at its peak. What is more, her voice is still able to thrill as no one else's does. The one in Cologne might be her last Maschallin, but her artistry remains unique. And through her work as a teacher, her inimitable style and approach will be passed down and never fade out.

By Marina Romani

To know more about The Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation visit http://www.kiritekanawa.org/.

For a list of resources about Te Kanawa's recordings, bibliography, discography and videography, visit the Harvard Kiri Te Kanawa Page.

Photos: Te Kanawa at the Hollywood Bowl (Credits: Anne Cusack/The Los Angeles Times); Te Kanawa at the Hollywood Bowl with Frederica von Stade (Credits: AP Photo); Te Kanawa teaching at the Solti Te Kanawa Accademia di Bel Canto (Credits: Clive Barda).

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Kiri Te KanawaRelated articles:

Masterclass at the Guildhall with Kiri Te Kanawa
DVD Review of Verdi's Otello. Solti, Domingo, Te Kanawa, Leiferkus (Opus Arte)
CD Review of Parsifal (1971) from the ROH Heritage with young Te Kanawa
Concert Review Solti Accademia di Bel Canto recital at Wigmore Hall
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