Yvonne Kenny is the 2019 Australian of the Year in the UK – the top honour from the Australia Day Foundation. The distinguished lyric soprano was presented with the Award at a gala dinner at Australia House in London, on Australia Day.

Kenny made her opera debut in 1975. The following year, she debuted at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in the world premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s We Come to the River, after which she joined the company where she was a member until 1996. She has sung at many of the world’s leading opera houses, and returned regularly to perform as a guest artist with Opera Australia.

Kenny is internationally recognised for her recordings of French and Italian bel canto repertoire for Opera Rara, and has made a number of albums for ABC Classics including Simple Gifts in 1995, which because the first Australian classical recording to reach gold. She provided the voice of Dame Nellie Melba in the 1988 television mini-series Melba, and was one of the artists who performed at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. She now works predominantly as a vocal teacher.

Kenny was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1989 for services to music and had an Honorary Doctorate in Music by the University of Sydney conferred on her in 1999. She spoke to Limelight about her recent honour as the UK’s Australian of the Year.

 Yvonne Kenny receiving her Australian of the Year Award in the UK from The Hon George Brandis QC. Photograph supplied

Congratulations on being named Australia of the Year in London. What did the award mean to you?

Thank you. I was absolutely thrilled to receive this Award. Over the last 12 years or so, the focus has gradually moved away from my own performing career to the new direction of teaching and mentoring the next generation of singers. Because of this, I am still based in London, so I think many Australians don’t know much about this part of my life. So, I’m delighted to have been recognised here in London for the work I’m doing as a teacher, and also charity work as Chair of the Australian Music Foundation UK, which supports young Australian musicians in their post-graduate studies overseas.

Can you tell us a little bit about being presented with the Award at the dinner at Australia House?

The Award was given by the Australia Day Foundation and the Australian High Commission. It is a very famous event in the Australian social calendar here and this year it fell exactly on Australia Day, Saturday January 26, in the Exhibition Hall at Australia House. It is a wonderful sit-down dinner for 240 guests. The room looked very beautiful, the tables were decorated with wattle and natives.  The event was dedicated to the Wallabies and Wallaroos in preparation for the World Cup later this year. After dinner, the Awards were announced and I was presented with my Australian of the Year in the UK Award by the High Commissioner, The Hon George Brandis QC. I then made a speech in response. It was a very special evening for me.

Had they given you time to prepare or did it come as a surprise?

I had actually known about it since late September, however I had been sworn to secrecy. I didn’t tell a soul as I didn’t want to spoil the surprise for everyone on the night. So, I had time to prepare my speech of acceptance and thanks.

I know that you teach at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Do you enjoy teaching?

Yes, I teach at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, also at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden with the Young Artists Programme singers, as well as at my own private studio.  I enjoy teaching very much. In a way, it’s like being a vocal detective – listening to a sound and thinking, what is it that’s missing, [what do they need] to adjust or change technically to make it more resonant and more beautiful. I learnt so much in my own singing career from so many wonderful musicians that it’s a pleasure to pass it on to the next generation.

How much do you sing yourself these days?

I still sing and enjoy singing concerts. I moved on from opera some time ago. I choose the repertoire that suits my voice now and that is comfortable and enjoyable to sing. However, my teaching is pretty all-consuming and at times exhausting and I find it difficult to find the time to practice enough for my own performances.

Are you optimistic at the future of opera, and bringing new young audiences to see it?

I am optimistic about the future of all great music. It is a constant challenge for opera companies to remain relevant to today’s public and their interests, and I think they are doing a really good job of finding that balance between the past and the present. I can only hope that the power of the music and the beauty of the wonderful voices in opera will always inspire and captivate every new generation of opera-goers.