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Christmas 2014

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa takes her final bow at the opera

7 March 2014, London, UK

Dame Kiri te Kanawa as Desdemona in 'Otello' at the Metropolitan Opera, 1974
Dame Kiri te Kanawa as Desdemona in 'Otello' at the Metropolitan Opera, 1974(Photo: Louis Mélançon / Metropolitan Opera Archives)

She’s had one of the most spectacular and successful operatic careers of our time, but as she turned 70 this week, Kiri Te Kanawa announced that she would be giving her silken vocal chords a rest – for good.

Last night, the redoubtable Dame celebrated her birthday in the place she has referred to as her ‘second home’ – the stage of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. She made her debut there in 1971 as a recent graduate of the National opera Studio, and now it looks as if she won’t be back. Her current performances as the comical aristocrat, the Duchesse von Crackentorp, in Donizetti’s delightfully screwball La Fille du régiment have been billed as her final appearances at the opera.

In truth, Te Kanawa retired from the operatic stage some time ago (Donizetti’s ludicrous Duchesse is officially a non-singing cameo role that doesn’t really give a lot of scope for vocal gymnastics). Her last major operatic incarnation was as Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, which she sang in Monaco in 2004. Since then, her appearances have been mostly on the concert platform and in fundraising events for the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation for young singers: to celebrate her 70th birthday, she has awarded £70,000 in grants to young artists this year. ‘Behind every great career is a great teacher,’ she says, ‘but a decent singing lesson costs between £50 and £100 these days – that’s a lot for a student to find.’

Not that this will be the last we hear from Dame Kiri. She remains an active teacher herself, and a shrewd mentor to young singers. She is also patron of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, a position which allows her to be a powerful advocate for the opera profession, while roundly condemning those whom she feels are failing a new generation of talent – uncaring agents and ignorant conductors in particular have been at the sharp end of her criticism: ‘I don’t think there’s a real understanding of what a singing voice is, how it works these days,’ she told Opera Now. ‘Recently, I was talking to a doctor who told me that the workload on singers is just horrendous – they’re expected to take on large roles all too close together. So we’re seeing serious vocal problems among opera singers throughout the world. Even professionals who should know better don’t recognise that singing without microphones is the essence of opera and makes huge demands on voices.’

In spite of her prodigious success and huge popular appeal beyond the operatic stage (which has included a guest appearance in the latest series of Downton Abbey and a recording of Maori folksongs which has been an unexpected hit), Dame Kiri still has some regrets: ‘I wish I’d learnt more roles and been better at languages. I never really got to grips with Russian opera, which is a sadness, and I should have been able to speak at least three languages fluently by now.'

As far as performing is concerned, Dame Kiri is keeping an open mind about the future: ‘I might try some acting if the right roles came my way. I really don’t intend to do another opera, but it’s silly to say “never” about anything.' She might well find herself quoting the words of her fellow Antipodean Diva, Dame Edna Everidge, who at the end of ‘her’ Farewell tour of the UK last month, announced at the curtain call: ‘You’ve been a lovely audience, and I look forward to seeing you all again at my next Farewell Tour…’


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