Soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa talks about finding her place in the world
of opera, her illustrious colleagues and the great roles that make her tick.

When you first began singing opera, you regarded yourself as a mezzo. How did you discover the top of your voice?

Richard Bonynge and Joan took an interest in the London Opera Centre where I was a student – there were occasional master classes which they attended. My singing teacher in New Zealand, Dame Sister Mary Leo, had apparently (so I was later told) wondered if my mezzo might develop into a soprano. But Richard Bonynge was quite definite about it. To be honest, it was a bit of a surprise. I had already sung the role of Carmen in two productions. But the next time I was in Carmen… it was as Micaëla.

How important were Sutherland and Bonygne to you as a young singer?

You can’t even estimate how important they were. They were generous in every way to all young singers – as well as advice, they created opportunities to sing with them. They were standards
to aspire to.

You once said one of the reasons you’ve avoided singing Handel was because it is so strongly associated with Sutherland. How do you think you’ve made your mark in opera? What roles would you like to be remembered for?

In my earlier days, I was directed by Sir Colin Davis into the music of Mozart, and I enjoyed that for many years – until I discovered Richard Strauss. Singing a great deal of Mozart has been a major reason why my technique has remained secure. I can’t avoid knowing that Countess Almaviva, and Strauss’s Marschallin (plus his Arabella and Madeleine in Capriccio) are the performances which have most been commented on as “memorable”. The music of both Mozart and Strauss seems to sit exactly within my voice. Both of them compose very sympathetically for a soprano – there are times when the orchestra starts to swell behind you, and then it gently parts for your high solo to come through. You feel protected. And particularly Mozart, when sung properly, keeps the vocal technique in trim. His vocal line is precise, exacting, and must be sung accurately.

You’ve sung with so many greats: Pavarotti, Fischer-Dieskau, Freni – to name but a few. Who was the most fun to work with? From whom have you learned the most?

There is no easy answer to that, except to say that they were all great to work with. But it would be impossible not to mention Pavarotti – a giant of a man with a giant talent and a voice which no man on earth could match. And Dame Joan Sutherland – a voice whose like we will not hear again.

What made your collaborations with Georg Solti so successful?

He was of a generation of great conductors, and I came to admire his musicianship so much that I felt he could do no wrong.

Opera fans don’t see what happens behind the scenes: learning the music, the weeks of rehearsal, etc. Do you find that process a chore?

That is what the job is. Many hours of study and preparation ­– that is what we have to do. Then comes the rehearsal period leading up to the performances; constantly protecting the voice to make sure we don’t let people down. But if the preparation has all been done – then the performance itself can be both thrilling and fulfilling.

You’ve mentioned before that learning parts is not your forte. Which of your roles was the most difficult to learn? Do you think prompters are important?

I enjoyed Vanessa [by Samuel Barber], but it wasn’t easy to learn because of the modern idiom in the vocal line. And prompters, well, they have become an integral part of opera performances. Singers in musical theatre may give several performances a week, over many weeks, of the self-same role; they’re unlikely to forget. But opera singers cannot sustain full performances night after night, so the repertoire and cast changes several times a week. Sometimes you need to sing in three different languages over a short space of time. And with modern travel, the city can change each week. I think, yes, the prompter can save the day… and I’d call that important.

In roles like the Marschallin – who has such a huge amount of pathos to her character – how do you prepare for the acting side of things? How do you get into character?

I think of someone in real life whom I like, and who would have sympathy with the Marschallin, and then I try to identify with that person. But the real answer is in the music. For instance, pathos is very close when you’re singing Mimi’s dying scene. Invariably the music gives you what you need.

If you could have any opera character as a friend, who would it be, and why?

The character of one of my roles really impresses me: Donna Elvira from Don Giovanni. She’s an interesting, stylish and explosive woman, and one whom people have to respect. I’d be quite prepared to have her as a friend… though I suspect she might at times be difficult to handle!   

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa sings a solo recital of her favourite arias by Mozart, Handel, Strauss, Puccini and others at QPAC, Brisbane on February 22.
She sings with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra at the Pioneer Women’s Memorial, Perth on February 25.