Dame Kiri Te Kanawa by Karen Phelps
Kiri Te Kanawa can be one intimidating dame. A force to be reckoned with in the singing world it is quickly apparent she is not one to beat around the bush. Kiri is an intensely private person. Attempting to avoid the oft-quoted PR spiel (available on a website near you) and glean a few new snippets about her past personal life is virtually impossible:
“It’s all down there somewhere. I don’t have to go through all this. Basically your time’s up if you haven’t done the background. I’m [nearly] 60 now I don’t want to go this far back,” she says tetchily down the phone from the Bay of Islands where she is on holiday.
Initially cagey she gives little away until asked about her latest project – the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation - then as her manager Paul Gleeson predicted, “she won’t stop talking.”
The foundation will be launched in New Zealand at a gala concert on 28 February at Auckland’s Aotea Centre where Kiri will perform with Dame Malvina Major who she refers to in her proper British English accent as her “good mate.”
The foundation is a distinct change of focus for Kiri who is entering her sixth decade but whose career at present shows no signs of diminishing:
“While my own career will possibly slow down the foundation will speed up and I can still be helpful. I think you just need to know you are being productive.”
The Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation has been established to assist dedicated and talented young New Zealanders in realising their dreams. Its mission is to establish, build and manage a trust fund to provide financial and career support to selected talented New Zealand singers and musicians. There will also be a sister branch set up in England – Friends of the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation - which is set to be launched in early March at a gala dinner with guests including Princess Anne and Princess Alexandra.
“I don’t want to say I am ‘putting back something’ because that means I’ve been so wonderful I’m putting back, look what I’ve done. I’m not like that. I just want to make it easier for students who are suffering so [I prefer to say] I’m ‘setting up’ something.”
The young Kiri herself had limited financial assistance virtually paying her own way when she traveled to England in her early twenties to further her career by studying with some of the best teachers in the world. After appearing in little known operas Kiri received critical praise as Idamantes in Mozart's Idomeneo. Soon after she was granted a three-year contract as a junior principal at Covent Garden. She gained legendary status almost overnight after her performance as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1971. From then she moved rapidly into the front rank of international opera including singing at St. Paul's cathedral at the marriage of HRH the Prince of Wales to the Lady Diana Spencer with one of the largest direct telecast audience of any singer in history estimated to be over 600 million people. On the last National Business Review Rich List she was estimated to be worth a cool $15m – not bad for a girl originally hailing from Gisborne.
“I would not have changed it. You only learn by struggle and mistakes. I was unknown and from New Zealand, a distant country no one had even heard of.”
She is careful in her choice of words and says the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation will assist young singers and musicians:
“I don’t believe in giving huge amounts because they don’t know how to manage it,” she reasons.
The foundation will offer judicious mentoring, development of potential, financial support, career assistance and general guidance. There will be a network of ‘helpers’ such as singing teachers, conductors, pianists, retiring singers etc to offer advice. Her strong point she says is being able to pick up the telephone and put up and coming talent in contact with the right influential people who can help further their career. But make no mistake the foundation will offer no free rides:
“It will not necessarily be a short circuit but I will help them to cut off the corners I had to struggle around. It’s not as if they’re not going to have to work. When you want to get well known you work hard and along the line you hope you will influence and impress. I hope [with the foundation] their path will be slightly helped, not sweetened, but enhanced.”
Lack of time has been an issue in establishing the foundation, which has been in the works for the past two years. Kiri admits she has been fortunate to have had a lot of help and “considerable” donations.
The foundation will be open to any singer and musician in New Zealand and Kiri is adamant there will be no favouritism:
“I will not allow this to happen. I am not like that; it will be totally on talent and financial background. There is a lot of talent in this country and it just needs to be nurtured. I am astounded sometimes and just think aren’t we lucky to be part of it? The foundation will be a huge job but hopefully no [talented New Zealander] will miss out on an opportunity to be heard. There will be an awful lot of people who will never make it but hopefully there will be one in there who will and I hope that person doesn’t slip us by.”
Kiri admits she is not afraid to “call a spade a spade” and that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, qualities one would assume, which have helped her to get to the top of her notoriously difficult field. Paul Gleeson, who has acted as Kiri’s manager for the past 20 years, says Kiri has a great sense of humour and is the ultimate perfectionist:
“She’s the most professional artist I have worked with and she has very high expectations. She is very easy to work with as long as you know you have to aim in pursuit of excellence all the time –mediocrity doesn’t enter into it.”
Kiri admits a life spent splitting her time between various locations around the globe has not always been easy.
“I have lost out on having a bigger amount of friends in New Zealand but those I have got are hugely important and very special to me. I’m very proud my two children (Toni 28 and Tom 25) have come out unscathed and are living very well. Those sorts of achievements in life are ordinary but to a mother [they are important]. When they were young I tried to be with them as much as I possibly could. It was hard to juggle but I think it was alright.”
Although her career has never ceased to surprise her she maintains she is not impressed by it:
“I’m not a high profile person and like a certain amount of privacy. If you are going to have privacy you stay quiet but unfortunately sometimes things get out.”
So how is the young Kiri different from the nearly 60-year-old Kiri today?
“Experience and saying things with a little bit more authority. I think I will reach a certain stage where I don’t want to sing any more because it is a big physical effort. But I prefer not to slow down because then it takes a lot of hard work to bring [my voice] back up again. Today my voice is for my own comfort and pleasure. There is no need for me to go and sing at a particular opera house or for a particular person any more. I’m still studying, working and trying to perfect my singing.
“People work so hard all their lives so they can retire and do nothing. That would be a terrible thing for me. I would hate to sit and do nothing after all the productive years I’ve had - it would be a waste. There are not many sixty year olds who do what I do. They have a bus pass and are very proud of it but don’t ever mention a bus pass to me!
“There are so many lessons I’ve learned. Remaining true to my word and who I am is important. I am a New Zealander and left almost regretting that I had to go. I’ve seen now that I can come back and see that there are huge advantages to both the lives I’ve lived.”