There was a certain symmetry when New Zealander Dame Kiri Te Kanawa played Australia’s Dame Nellie Melba on Downton Abbey.
And it was her second project with the inimitable Dame Maggie Smith – Dame Kiri provided the sublime Puccini piece, famous on the soundtrack of the magnificent A Room with a View.
Dame Kiri was 70 on March 6, and is celebrating her first septuagenarian year with a grand concert tour, including the Sydney Opera House on May 20.
She was on the phone from her home south of London. And I was, needlessly, but unavoidably, terrified of not appearing the grand fool when interviewing her …
❏ There is a perception of you as a performer. You come across as not stiff and starchy but relaxed and accessible. Which no doubt gives you a shortcut into people’s hearts. Surely in the business of singing that would be as vital as technique and ability?
Um. I need to tell you I’m an ordinary person, I’m a country girl and I like ordinary things, I don’t have illusions of anything – grandeur or anything. So I s’pose I come over as, I don’t know, just like that. I hope I do.
Indeed. Your career has not been contained by or confined to opera houses and you have grasped lots of opportunities to embrace popular culture, giving you a far wider public perhaps than many other singers in your position. Such as your first project with Maggie Smith. Your contribution to A Room with a View was the crowning element that made the whole film so sublime. How did it happen for you?
A few things happened. They wanted a voice and a producer who did my recordings knew about me and put my name up. Wheels within wheels.
What did you think of the film the first time you saw it?
I saw it in New York and I just loved it. Ahhh. And I loved my music, too; it worked very well. I thought that’s very nice, a nice voice! [Laughs] And it was a very, very lovely film, with great actors.
Indeed. And your most recent project, ironically again with Maggie Smith, is another example of you embracing popular culture. How did Downton Abbey happen for you?
Downton happened because I met Julian Fellowes many years ago down here [in England] where I live and by chance he asked me to play the part. He’s a very nice person. Of course I couldn’t refuse could I?! Not really.
You didn’t appear on screen with Maggie Smith but you crossed paths?
Yes, we did. She’s wonderful. Well, they’re all wonderful. The whole cast was wonderful.
Your Maori heritage you’ve said is very important to you and singing is one of the hallmarks of Maori culture. The Maori people must be as proud of you as you are to be Maori.
Very much, yes, but I think my whole country is very proud of me as I am proud to be a New Zealander, too. It all works in a circle.
Did you grow up with a strong sense of Maori culture?
Not really. My father of course is Maori. At the time when I grew up, Maori were, gosh, it was a very different situation to what it is now. Now it’s very accepted. The language is accepted. When I was growing up it wasn’t. The Maori were not accepted. And, of course, that’s why the Maori people suffered with their education ‘cos they didn’t really cater to them being bilingual so they had difficulty with their education. It’s completely different now.
How did that inform you as a young girl growing up in a culture that wasn’t accepted?
You know something, I s’pose it’s one of those things. You just waft through. You just go through it. Ah, it didn’t seem to affect me. There were nasty things that happened. I remember being sent home from a birthday party because I was the only girl in the school not invited. And I remember being called a half-caste, I remember being called a Mowwwwwrie. I look back and did it really matter? I’m not affected by it. You develop a thick skin, hopefully.
You have a new album, Wiata. Is there a particular song on there you especially love to sing?
I think they’re all lovely but of course Whaakaria Mai is a very favoured song — it’s everybody’s favourite, that is, How Great Thou Art, and I love that piece. It’s gorgeous.
The tyranny of distance has long been a factor for singers from the antipodes right back to Melba of course. The world has now shrunk measurably in terms of travel which is now so easy and in terms of technology which puts good music and performance into the hands of everybody and yet especially here in Australia we still have the cultural cringe. How do you inspire confidence in the young singers that you are mentoring in your foundation?
You know you’d be quite surprised if you met these young people. They are so focused. They don’t see that there are problems. Or if there are problems they don’t want to know. They are so focused on what they want to do and I leave it up to them.
There’s a nice story which I saw on your website how you were actually pleased that a young singer didn’t take a particular prize in a recent competition, you were just happy for him to have the experience of competing but there is a moment you said that a lot of singers feel that they face an audience and they have that moment where they’re saying to themselves Do I run or do I sing!
That is something that affects anybody who has done anything publicly, even people who have to interview on the radio. What do you say to people to get them back into the moment and to forget their fears?
Well, I think another singer of mine who really almost sort of lost the faith I said believe, believe in yourself, and it’s very hard when nothing is happening but it happened for him — this is another singer, completely different from the one you’ve mentioned — and he now has a two-year contract in the German Opera House, he’s got work coming in that is just, you know, he says, oh my God I can’t cope. I said call me when you’re having a problem I tell you how to cope and the most important thing is to focus and make sure you’re singing well and you’re healthy, that’s all we care about.
One of the other inescapable truths of course is that many young singers including the ones you’re working with you won’t make it to the same standard that you have.
That’s true, yes, that’s true.
How can you counsel young people that perhaps the goal is not necessarily to become rich and famous or a star, ah, how can you shield them from the inevitable disappointment of perhaps not reaching the pinnacle that they desire?
The singers we are backing at the moment are all in very, very good shape, very focused, having very good critique, ah, they’re very positive with the opera houses and all the people that matter, they have the right agents. But there are some who have come through. I look at them and I say please be honest, know that maybe it’s not going to happen for you. There is quite often some other ones that I’m not backing, ah, though I can’t really say that to them. [cough cough I’ve had this flu for three weeks and I have to cough sorry] The ones we are backing are in good shape. The ones we are not backing are not so good.
Yeah. You said in another particularly honest moment that you felt you were, that you would have been a better parent if you had not pursued your career. Surely, that wasn’t an option?
Ohh. Gosh. Ahh. Ask many parents, you know, we’re all, we’re all either learning it for the first time . I used to say to my daughter, this is my first time, too, as a parent. It’s very difficult to say should I or should I not have and I talk to my daughter now who really um she was the one who said Oh Mum you were never there for me. I said I was there as much as I could be. She now looks back and she says no you were, you were there, um, and she says I know you loved us but she said sometimes it was difficult. It was terribly, terribly difficult and even now that you’re mentioning it it breaks my heart that I couldn’t always be there for my children and it’s every every parent, no matter, I think even I’d been there 24-hours it would never have been enough, never. And I look back now and it’s one of my big regrets.
Of course, the truth is that you can be there 24 hours a day yet emotionally still not be there.
Yes, exactly. And to have the career I had, was extraordinary and I don’t know what the answer is and I really wouldn’t even want some sort of psychologist or psychiatrist to tell me You know, you damaged yourself, you’ve damaged your children. I did, as every one, every parent will say, I did the best I could.
Speaking for myself, most of us damage our children in one way or another. It’s a matter of the good things that we can put in which are far more important.
Well my children were over here for my 70th birthday now just in this last month. They were absolutely wonderful. It with the most precious and gorgeous time I’d had with them for quite a time because we haven’t always been together and it was special and there was a lot of family love there so I felt like you know I hadn’t done it, I hadn’t been too bad!
I’m not patting myself on the back but I thought my kids they were brought up over here, they went to school over here for many many many years. They came in and sort of took over and one went off to Paris and one went off to Barcelona, on their own, hired cars, would come in at two or three o’clock in the morning. It was perfect. I didn’t worry, I didn’t worry one minute whereas before, before they left for New Zealand and Australia they, I was terrified that something would happen to them, that they’re, they’re fabulous children. I’m so lucky. Both adopted of course and the most fabulous children.
What pieces have you chosen for your Australian tour because you just enjoy them and what have you elected to sing because you know your audience wants to hear it?
The audience always wants Puccini, so I’ve chosen to do it, which I think is nice. I’ve chosen some other songs, you know, just some lighter songs, some folk songs, and one or two just fun songs so hopefully we’ll do a couple of new songs. It’s just an enjoyable programming and hopefully the audience will love what I’m doing.
Yeah. Will it be a mixture of popular songs and operatic pieces?
Yes absolutely, yes.
Will there be any flexibility in what you perform from city to city or will it be exactly the same?
It will be exactly the same unless I look and I think we’ve got some other songs here. Nothing, nothing’s set in stone.
And when you said that you’ll be singing Puccini you do mean O Mio Babbino Caro?
The Babbino, yes. Of course! Why not?!
You never get sick of singing it?
No, I don’t because it always affects people in all sorts of ways and everyone loves it.
How do you sing the same song again and again and again and and still find that truth and emotional core?
That’s because in the centre of it I love it and I really enjoy feeling the music, hearing the music, and of course I just love Puccini. It’s very singable. I’m doing some Handel, and I’m doing some French songs, and Spanish songs, and folksongs. And a modern one.
Does everything always go smoothly when you perform?
I was in a performance once in Brisbane and we had a power cut. And we’ve had a very small earthquake and another power cut in another hall, a brand new hall. Nothing too drastic.
Well a small earthquake is pretty drastic. Where did that happen?
Japan, I think. Things were shaking. I remember some one saying, like my mother says, Oh for God’s sake, stop making such a fuss. Stand under the doorway. [laughs]. And of course, earthquakes aren’t like that! My mother would just sit there in her chair and say Oh stop being so stupid. It’s nothing. It’ll go soon.
What sort of feedback do you enjoy most from your audiences?
That they love the music. When questions and answers come up they’re not quite what I think. I was doing questions and answers the other day and the questions were what’s my favourite opera? What’s my favourite song? What’s my favourite theatre? Not, you know, how do you get to somewhere without your children? How do you move to a new apartment and cope with the next six weeks? Never those questions. Never the bits I really hated. ❏
May 10-11: Melbourne Recital Centre - ticketek.com.au or 132 849
May 13: Perth Concert Hall - ticketek.com.au or 132 849
May 16: Canberra Llewellyn Hall - ticketek.com.au or 132 849
May 18: Adelaide Festival Theatre - bass.net.au or 131 246
May 20: Sydney Opera House - sydneyoperahouse.com or 9250 7777 or ticketek.com.au or 132 849