Celebrated soprano Kiri te Kanawa returns to Broward Center Tuesday

By Lawrence Budmen

Kiri te Kanawa

Kiri te Kanawa

For nearly four decades Dame Kiri te Kanawa’s star has shone brightly on the international opera and concert stages.

Yet, while recent seasons have found most of her time devoted to the training and mentoring of aspiring young singers, the acclaimed soprano from New Zealand continues an active recital career throughout Europe and America with forays to Scandinavia and Asia.

Dame Kiri, who turns 66 on Saturday, attributes her vocal health and career longevity to her personal role in making artistic decisions and guiding her career. “An artist has a world to create,” she notes. “One person has to take charge. I was fairly strong and brave.”

On Tuesday night the Broward Center for the Performing Arts’ Classical Series will present Dame Kiri in her first South Florida appearance in many years. The soprano will serve up a wide-ranging program of Baroque arias by Handel and Vivaldi, Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, songs by Liszt, Reynaldo Hahn, Faure, Debussy, and Ginastera, as well as a group of traditional songs from the British Isles arranged by Benjamin Britten.

Dame Kiri’s 1971 debut at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as the Countess in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro in received international attention. In 1974 she made an unexpected debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, replacing Teresa Stratas as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello on a Saturday matinee broadcast. Appearances would soon follow at such major houses as the Vienna State Opera, Paris Opera, La Scala, Munich, Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera.

Reflecting on that seemingly fast rise to her career, Dame Kiri observes that she was in Covent Garden’s young artist program for five years. “I was paid only fifty pounds a week but it was worth it,” she recalls. “I was well taken care of and prepared for the opportunities that would come my way.”

Before she left for England to study, Dame Kiri had already had a successful cabaret, television and film career in New Zealand. In 1966 she enrolled at the London Opera Center where she quickly came to the attention of Sir Colin Davis, distinguished British conductor and artistic director of Covent Garden, who has said her audition was the most extraordinary he had ever experienced.


Her radiant voice and dignified stage persona were tailor-made for the operatic heroines of Mozart and Strauss. If there was one role that seemed to personify the te Kanawa mystique, it was the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. Her beautiful singing and the poignancy of her portrayal of an aging aristocrat in love with a younger man can be seen on videos of productions from Covent Garden and the Met, conducted by James Levine and Sir Georg Solti.

She will return to the Marschallin in April at the Cologne Opera for what may be her operatic swan song. “It is a role I can do at my age,” she notes. Other Strauss heroines that she has championed are the Countess in Capriccio and the title role in Arabella.

A single production of Puccini’s Tosca (at the Paris Opera) in 1985 convinced her that the Roman diva was not a good fit for her voice but she has sung many other Italian roles, including that composer’s Manon Lescaut and Verdi’s Desdemona, Amelia in Simon Boccanegra and Violetta in La Traviata.

Her Violetta was criticized as dispassionate and temperamentally bland but few sopranos have sung the role with such tonal beauty and musical accuracy. She has no regrets about roles she did not perform. “There are so many roles I could do. It was more important to learn my repertoire well,” she said in typically unsentimental fashion.

After singing the title role in Samuel Barber’s Vanessa in productions in Washington and Los Angele, she retired from the opera stage in 2004. “I was tired of opera,” she stated but her recent cameo at the Met as the Duchess of Krakenthorp in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment seems to have rekindled her enthusiasm. “I loved it. I really missed the Met…being back was a thrill. I sang a Ginastera song which I had orchestrated for the occasion.” (That same song, Cancion al arbol delolvido, will conclude her Broward Center concert.)

It was a Handel aria — Let the Bright Seraphim from Samson — that brought her the largest audience of her career when she sang at the televised wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, and Handel arias will open her program Tuesday night.

“Handel is a wonderful composer for the voice,” says Dame Kiri. “You can sing his music throughout your entire career. Every singer should sing some Handel. Like Mozart, his music is exacting. It really is great training.”

Her recorded forays into crossover material have been more controversial. She has done albums of songs by Gershwin, Porter and Kern and collaborated with legendary arranger-conductor Nelson Riddle on Blue Skies, a survey of the Great American Songbook. Recordings of West Side Story, My Fair Lady and South Pacific received mixed reviews but her album of her native Maori Songs was a bestseller. More recently she has done a recording with New Age music guru Karl Jenkins.

In a recording career rich with Mozart and Strauss, one of her most successful solo ventures was Songs of the Auvergne, which brought Canteloube’s delightful folk song arrangements to a whole new generation of listeners. Four of those pieces figure on her Fort Lauderdale recital. “I believe I can bring a more mature interpretation to these songs now and look forward to singing them again,” she said.

The vocal works of Franz Liszt are concert-hall rarities but Dame Kiri promises three at her recital. “Liszt’s songs are so beautiful. I only wish I had time to learn and perform more of them. I keep working to bring this repertoire to the audience.”

Despite constant rumors, she has continually denied that she will retire from singing. These days it is the training of young singers that is very much on her mind.

In 2004 she launched the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation, a charity that aims to aid young artists from New Zealand through study and mentorship programs. She is founding artistic director of the Italian based Solti te Kanawa Academia di Bel Canto, a training program for aspiring young opera singers.

“I am interested in developing the artist as an individual,” she says, “to really help young singers. I want to give something back to the art and I am loving every minute of it.”

The Broward Center Classical Series presents Kiri te Kanawa with pianist Brian Zeger 8 p.m. Tuesday. 954-462-0222, http://browardcenter.org

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Thu Mar 4, 2010
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