THE last time we interviewed Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, she was telling us how much she’d enjoyed playing the speaking part of the eccentric Duchess of Krakenthorp in Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment”.This year she’s done it again, performing the comic role at the Royal Opera house, Covent Garden, as part of her 70th birthday celebrations.
She’ll be here in Canberra in mid-May as part of a national 70th birthday tour and “CityNews” caught up with her by phone to NZ, where she likes to spend a large segment of time each year, relaxing, walking and fishing.
Dame Kiri is notable for steering clear of major operatic performing roles these days, preferring to spend the time on nurturing young singers and musicians through her Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation.
“There are not many 70-year-olds doing roles,” she says, “There are only so many young parts you can play. You look older and the parts aren’t there. Vocally, I don’t really want to play old ladies.”
She contrasts her situation with that of performers in straight theatre, saying: “If you are an actress or an actor there are new plays and new scripts coming through all the time – an actress like Maggie Smith can act in all these wonderful parts.”
But alas, it is different in opera.
“At the moment we don’t have things written for people like me,” she notes. We agree that there are a few aged and demented gypsy women in opera, but they’re normally written for a lower register.
“The most important composers are all dead,” Dame Kiri says. “We don’t have a chance for Mozart to come back and write characters for older women… I think about it a lot”
We discuss singers such as Dame Joan Sutherland, who retired at 64 and was known to disapprove of Pavarotti’s persistence on the stage in his later years.
“It all depends on how well you feel and if you want to do it, it’s very personal,” Dame Kiri says.
But she does keep well and enjoys the healthy lifestyle when she spends time in NZ. It’s a perfect day in the Bay of Islands and there’s fresh squid on the menu for lunch.
Her Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation work is going well, the young Russian opera singer Julia Lezhneva, about whom we spoke in 2012, is “doing wonderfully” in Russia and Salzburg and “there are quite a few young protégés on the map”. Not least of her newer protégés is NZ baritone Philip Rhodes, who’s just sung Marcello in “La Boheme”, scored a two-year contract with the Bremen Opera house in Germany and been engaged to “cover” principals at Covent Garden.
“In our business, you proceed step-by-step not in jumps,” she says.
Dame Kiri is no Nellie Melba, jealously guarding her preserves.
“I was never one of those people who felt jealous of other performers, because I was doing extremely well and was more than busy with work… If I were to feel jealous it would be a terrible pain… jealousy eats you away… My time is now for young people,” she says.
And talking of Melba, late last year she enjoyed a “very special” two days on the set of “Downton Abbey,” performing the role of Dame Nellie in a rare TV appearance.
When she comes to Canberra, Dame Kiri promises audience favourites by Mozart and Puccini, but she’s known for choosing her own songs, too. That must remain a surprise as to keep things fresh, as she puts it, “I like to shift around my favourite things”.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s 70th birthday National Recital Tour, at Llewellyn Hall, Friday, May 16, bookings to ticketek.com.au or 132849.