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If you like Kiri Te Kanawa's story, you might also like:
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Olivia de Havilland,
Jeremy Irons,
Suzanne Farrell,
Peter Jackson,
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and Julie Taymor

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Kiri Te Kanawa
Kiri Te Kanawa
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Kiri Te Kanawa Interview (page: 2 / 9)

Beloved Opera Singer

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  Kiri Te Kanawa

When you approach a role like the Countess in Marriage of Figaro, do you approach it all together, the singing, the acting, the words? Or do you just learn the music first?

Kiri Te Kanawa: Gosh. Now that you ask me the question, it's going to be hard to answer.

First of all, of course, you've got to know the music. You've got to know all the different things. And so the music came, of course, first with me. Then you had to know what you were doing, then you have to know what your colleagues were doing. You had to know what they were talking about and how they were moving around you. And then you have to make sure that your timing -- and your colleague was not, as they say, upstaged during what you were doing. So you had to sort of take your place in the jigsaw puzzle. And the jigsaw puzzle was doing your job within the job. But yet, always being part of the action and having the energy behind all you were doing. So you all live with the same mission, was to complete the story and tell it to the audience. That was my thing all the time. Make sure the audience knows what we're doing. Of course, you know, surtitles and subtitles have come out. And I think that's wonderful. Because the audience, if they don't speak the language, they're right in it with you. You say, "I understood every word!" And I think, "Yes. Of course, you did." That's fantastic.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Can you talk about performing "Porgi, amor" in Marriage of Figaro, and the effect it had on the audience? How did you prepare yourself for that, and how did you react when the audience went crazy?

Kiri Te Kanawa: Well, I never ever believed in any accolades. Because I sort of thought if my singing teacher says it's okay, and the people who are really, really close to me --and there are only one or two -- if they say it's okay, then I wait for that signal. I wasn't really taken in by it, and still haven't been taken in by it because accolades come and go. It's how you feel about yourself.

I do remember the preparations every night, and during the dress rehearsal, that the pianist would come to my room and we'd go up, walk up two or three flights above the dressing room. And I'd literally sing that aria four times through. And then I'd be in costume. And I'd walk. I'd have my costume on. I was all ready. And from that point of work, singing it through three or four times, very softly -- never sing full voice -- I walked straight down to the stage, sit in position and I was ready. And that's how I did it. And I continued to do that for many years, every time I did Figaro.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

So you went through the whole aria four times before singing it onstage?

Kiri Te Kanawa Interview Photo
Kiri Te Kanawa: It was just another time through by the time I got on stage. It wasn't more important than the first one or the sixth one I was going to do. I was singing it and singing it and singing it and singing it. It's one of the most difficult arias in the repertoire. It sits horribly for the singer because it's a long wait. You've got to wait out the first act, and you're listening to what's going on, and of course you're getting more nervous. But there wasn't time to get nervous because I was too busy singing the aria through. So I had no time to think about anything. That's what the whole thing is when you're occupied, you just go on and do it.

You had a remarkable debut at the Metropolitan Opera, when you went on as a last minute substitute for Teresa Stratas in Otello. What was that like?

Kiri Te Kanawa: Gosh. I was brought over to cover Teresa Stratas and watch the production. Covent Garden had released me but I think they resisted my coming here. They weren't too pleased that I was coming to the Met. They said it was too soon, and I think there was a little bit of opposition there. But anyway, that was fine. I came. And I was going there, watching rehearsals, watching everything they did. I went through the dress rehearsal, watched it, and thought, "Gosh. This is fairly amazing," and then went home and that was it. That was the end of it. Jon Vickers came into one or two of the rehearsals, and they said, "Let's go through the whole thing with Jon," which I did. And it was a horrible afternoon. I went home and it was starting to snow. And I thought, "Well, that's that." I woke up the next morning and I thought, "Well, I'll just go shopping or something." And then I was going to go to the afternoon performance. And I had someone staying with me.

The telephone rang, and I said, "If it's the Met, tell 'em I've gone shopping," or whatever it was, and she did. And it was the Met, and she hung up on them. I thought, "God damn it." I said, "What did they want?" "Oh, they want you to call." I said, "What? They called?" And I thought it seems like, you know, my antennae went up, and I thought something's gone wrong. Anyway, I think my agent called me and said, "I think you're going to have to get down there." Well anyway, I sort of threw some clothes on. I didn't have a dressing gown or anything. So he went to the store, got something for me to wear in the dressing room. All hell went loose. I got in a taxi -- who came from Brooklyn, didn't know where the Met was. I said, "But it's straight down this street here." I didn't know where the street was. I was up on 79 or something. And I thought, "This is getting worser and worser." It was snowing, it had snowed all night and there was snow all on the road. And the guy was saying -- I said, "Look. Just stop here. That's the Met. If you ever need to know it again, there it is."

And so I rushed across the square or the plaza, straight through. I think you were able to go through the front door by that time. And I did.

I just went like a mad thing through the front door. And everyone was there. Of course, it's once again the circus. That "bzzzz" that's going on. And there's every man and his dog is there trying to give you information. And there's the director trying to do something and the conductor's there. Of course, Jimmy's there. And Jon Vickers is there. And they're all there. And you think, "Shut up and get out!" And I just said, "I just need time." So somehow people threw a wig on me and some makeup and we were on. We're on the number 52 bus to heaven. So it was like that. It was just this absolute panic. And then I got through the first act. And I thought, "Thank God!" And you know, no one -- none of my family -- my singing teacher was going to be there in a few weeks to come and see my first performance. And my husband, who was then, was going to come. And all my friends were going to come. And I couldn't get them, because it was snowing. And it was just -- it was impossible. So I went on, the loneliest person in the world.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

And I did this performance. And it just went crazy. And I thought, "I think this is what it's like to hit the jackpot." It was just the most crazy day in my life. And then for two days after that, it just went sort of crazy. And I thought, "I'm going to have to come down to earth soon. I'm just going to have to start being realistic."

Were you nervous?

Kiri Te Kanawa: There was no time for nerves. I was absolutely in a panic. Nerves, I was past that. It was beyond that. I was in a panic.

But you knew the role of Desdemona, and you'd had at least some rehearsal.

Kiri Te Kanawa Interview Photo
Kiri Te Kanawa: I think so. I was young and stupid. I was not even 30. When you're young, you're invincible. You can do anything you like. And I've certainly thought back, and I look at young people now, and I think, "God, they're young!" I was young, and you could do anything you liked, and I thought, "I can handle this. I'm fine at all this." And I did. I handled it. Then I had to wait another month to go on for my real performance. Of course, I was more nervous then, so it was a crazy time. It was one of the most exciting two or three days of my life.

Desdemona is a very beautiful and demanding role, dramatically as well as musically.

Kiri Te Kanawa: Oh yes, it's one of the best. And I wouldn't have changed a single moment in all of it. And then having someone like Jon Vickers sitting next to you, that's amazing. People have done debuts like that before, but I don't think anything as extraordinary as that. For someone who least expected to go on at 11:00 in the morning, and I'm on at 2:00. That was so far out of my zone, I was not there. But I made it. I made it. And I did it.

After that, you must have really been in demand.

Kiri Te Kanawa: Yes, then it all started. That's basically what happens in a career if you're lucky enough to have that sort of start. You'd like it to go a little slower of course, as I would have done. I would have been happy. Two years before, I had a little Covent Garden debut basically, but nothing as whiz bang. I was sort of in a jumbo jet, going faster than anybody else in the entire planet on that day. I look back, and I think, just a moment of that again would have been nice to sort of experience. Because when you're in it, it's just going too fast. But I could relive it sometimes, which was nice.

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This page last revised on Jun 12, 2012 21:45 EST
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