Ahead of her much-anticipated Belfast Festival appearance, Matthew McCreary of the Belfast Telegraph talks to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. In what is a rather mundane interview (the fault of the Dame, not the interviewer) here are the most interesting replies:
You will be singing a duet alongside Ben McAteer, the winner of the NI Opera Festival of Voice competition. What tips will you have for the young star on stage?
I was so happy to meet Ben McAteer last week in London when he attended a masterclass I was giving — he seems a very hardworking young man and I have been hearing excellent reports about his talents.
I am thrilled we will work together in Belfast and I really wish him all the very best for the future. As with all these young singers, they have such a tough time these days to break through and be ‘discovered’ and I would always advise them to keep studying and learning, and really taking care of the precious gift that is their voice.
Do you find life on the road tiring or is it something you still enjoy even after so many years?
My life is still very exciting, with a lot of projects which take me all over the world — but with everything, I think one needs to keep to a set routine in life, wherever you are. I tend to avoid late nights and keep to my own schedule. It also means I have to have good organisation around me to make sure nothing is left to chance, so there is more time to enjoy my travels.
Which roles have been your favourite to perform over the years or is there a composer you prefer in general?
I think it’s hard to say which I have enjoyed the most as the different styles of wonderful composers whose work I have performed are really so varied. A lot has to do with the friendship of other performers on the stage with whom you build up unique relationships, and so whether it has been Mozart, Verdi or Strauss, I think I have been so lucky to find roles which suit my voice and temperament. Perhaps I’d say Arabella, from the opera of the same name by Strauss, or then again, it could be the wonderful role of Desdemona in Othello.
When did you realise that you could sing and that was what you wanted to do with your life?
It was always something I enjoyed and my family were musical and encouraged me to sing — we didn’t have television in New Zealand until I was about 16 years old, so much of our entertainment came from what we did ourselves.
Who has been the greatest support to you in your career?
Many people ask me this, but I would say that some of the great conductors I have worked with, such as Sir Georg Solti and Herbert von Karajan, gave me a different support from my family and teachers.
The word ‘diva’ is often applied to famous opera singers, and not always in a kind way. Do you think it’s a fair label?
It’s a very demanding profession, with a very delicate mechanism — the voice — at the heart of it all. Perhaps we singers have become known for protecting ourselves and maybe this creates an aura around one, so it is a misunderstood description, but I do also think that a diva can mean something quite positive, don’t you?
What are your other passions in life, apart from singing?
I have a new little puppy in my life. Sadly, she won’t be with me in Belfast, as we are still arranging her ‘passport’, but you can expect to see her travelling with me in future.
Away from classical music, do you have a wilder side musically?
Not really, as I would always consider my taste as quite conservative, but there are some exceptions. I’ve recently been singing a wonderful song by Luther Vandross — To Dance with my Father — and find that very touching. But no, not really ‘wild’!
Are there any venues which you have enjoyed performing in more than any other? Does the venue make a difference to your performance?
I do love going back to New York to sing at the Met (Metropolitan Opera) and I will be there again this December in a speaking/singing role. And of course, Covent Garden in London was always very special for me.
Classical music has undergone quite a transformation in recent years, with more populist acts like Katherine Jenkins, Il Divo, Rhydian etc topping the charts. Do you feel this has been for the better?
That’s a very challenging question, which I am frequently asked and I can only think now of young Ben McAteer, who will be studying hard for quite a few more years before he is on stage in an opera role.
I want him to enjoy a long and lasting career and to concentrate on his craft and not to be sidetracked. Attractive as it is to top the charts, we want him to shine in his career through a different route, which will be quite hard enough.
There have been rumours of your retirement from singing in recent years, but when do you think you might call it a day once and for all?
Well rumours are rumours and I’ll let you know when I’ve decided to call it a day. Don’t forget I am teaching and mentoring young singers all the time, so the work will continue, hopefully, to support the next generation.
Photo: John Swannell