In her four decades of performing on the international stage, Kiri Te Kanawa has appeared to live a fairy-tale existence. Adopted as an infant, Te Kanawa enjoyed a modest New Zealand youth until the age of 19 when she placed second in that country’s most important singing contest: the Mobil Song Quest. Suddenly she was a popular recording star, recording the small country’s first gold album. At 21, she took first prize in the Mobil contest, which earned her a scholarship to study at the London Opera Centre. A year later she was married and in 1971, at the age of 26, Te Kanawa made her celebrated debut as the Countess in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” in London and Santa Fe.
In the next 10 years she sang at every major opera house in the world, signed an exclusive contract with Decca Records and became quite rich and famous. Then in 1981 her celebrity reached new heights when she was asked to sing at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. An estimated 600 million people heard her sing that day (and anyone who missed it probably heard her sing Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” over the credits of the popular Merchant-Ivory film “A Room With a View” five years later.) The fairy tale was complete when, in 1982, the orphaned, half-Maori girl from Gisborne was tapped by Queen Elizabeth to become a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
This week, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa will accept another award, this one in Los Angeles. On Friday, Te Kanawa will perform at the Hollywood Bowl’s season-opening gala, which will also serve as her induction into the Bowl’s Hall of Fame.
But this award comes after a 12-year spell when her life, which once seemed to soar on fairy dust, has become much more earthbound.
Te Kanawa spoke candidly about this and her reviving career last week during a chat at the Metropolitan Opera, the site of many triumphs -- but a stage where the soprano hasn’t performed one of her signature roles in more than 11 years.
“I had no intention of leaving,” Te Kanawa says about her last Met season, singing the part of the Countess in Richard Strauss’ “Capriccio” in 1998, “but then I had a divorce, and as I think sometimes happens, you lose the will to do what you love the most. And I think the only way I could cope was to sing in another way -- and opera wasn’t going to be it.”
Her divorce to mining engineer Desmond Park, her husband of 30 years, was finalized in 1997. According to a 1999 biography, “Kiri: Her Unsung Story” by Garry Jenkins and Stephen D’Antal, Te Kanawa was rocked by the revelation of his infidelities.
The elegant, soft-spoken diva does not dwell on her much-publicized personal past, but it was telling that when asked what opera role she identifies with most, rather than choosing the forgiving Countess or magnanimous Marschallin, Te Kanawa said, “Donna Elvira,” the eternally scorned lover from “Don Giovanni.”
It’s clear that her need to step away from opera (a world she refers to as “a bit of a circus”) came from a desire to reclaim her own voice. “I was the workhorse,” she says in her poised, direct way, referring to those years when she would be overseas in opera houses for many months of the year, “because that’s what I was made to do, not for anything other than the man I was living with. I was the workhorse, bringing in the money.”
In the wake of all this emotional turmoil, Te Kanawa struggled for a while. “Up to 12 years ago, I was riding along on the fairy-tale wagon . . . then, in the last 12 years, it hit.” There was the divorce, a flap about a comment she made about Maori people and welfare, and a gossipy lawsuit against her for canceling a concert in Australia because of the threat of underwear thrown on stage.
Then, just a few weeks ago it was revealed that a bank manager in Alameda reportedly stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from one of Te Kanawa’s retirement accounts.
“I think there’s been more reality in my life of late,” she says frankly. “I’ve had a lot of unfortunate things happen these last 12 years; I think it’s only in the last three years that I’ve come out of this, this whatever it’s called -- I don’t want to call it a black hole -- that I’ve come to find my balance.”
Naturally, finding that balance involved reengaging with music. “I really had to pick myself up and reinvent myself,” Te Kanawa says, admitting that music became part of her therapy. Professionally, this took form in two ways. The first was a retooling of her career: no more opera, plus a new focus on recitals and smaller solo concerts. The second was an interest in younger singers, a topic that excites her much more than rehashing her good, old days at the opera house.
“I’m really very anxious to find the new generation,” Te Kanawa says in an impassioned way that calls to mind her dramatic onstage heroines. “I’d like to see the real singers come through. . . . There are some stunners out there. We need them to be heard and not overshadowed, there’s the ‘Lollypop World’ and the real world which people are struggling to keep traditional.”
The “Lollypop World” that Te Kanawa speaks of is that of “American Idol"-style contest programs. “The so-called reality shows are killing off just about everything, and then you’ve got the recording companies, who will just go for whatever they can sell, so we’re not looking at the real singers coming through. My mission, I feel, is to find out if we have real singers who don’t have to use microphones to be heard.”
A refrain of Te Kanawa’s is that vocal technique is paramount, for the voice and for the soul.
“There is no substitute for hard work.” She insists: “if you’re going to have opera, you got to do it the right way . . . otherwise, why have we struggled so hard to hone this type of voice?”
As important as finding and teaching new singers (which Te Kanawa does for the Met’s Young Artist Development Program as well as the Solti/Te Kanawa Accademia di Bel Canto in Italy, and her own Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation) is nurturing those voices after they’ve been discovered.
“I’ve been involved with quite a few young singers now and am finding their voices are collapsing. They’re just doing everything or anything because they’re terrified that if they don’t do it, the agent will find someone else to do it . . . and a lot of them are singing all the wrong roles.”
Finding the right roles have also been key for the soprano, known for her pure, lustrous tone. In 2001, she was lured back to the operatic stage by “Vanessa,” Samuel Barber’s 1958 opera and a real shift from the more lyric roles the soprano was known for. The somber “Vanessa” represented not just a return to the opera house, but a new maturity onstage and off -- she says singing it was “like the turning of a very heavy page.”
When she sang the part for the last time with Los Angeles Opera in 2004 it was understood to be Te Kanawa’s operatic farewell. “I think I sort of got to age 60 and thought well, that was enough . . . no more opera.”
But five years later, Te Kanawa now appears to be ready for another comeback. Earlier this year, she agreed to return to the Met, albeit in a speaking role in the comic opera “La Fille du Régiment” (she adds though, “it’s not a singing role, but I will sing -- that’ll shock them”).
What’s more, she says that she has just decided to sing “Der Rosenkavalier” one last time next year in Cologne. (Though she adds, “It will be the last time, it really is, I know it is. The last time, yes.”)
Te Kanawa looks forward to singing at the Hollywood Bowl (two duets with her 1971 “Figaro” castmate, Frederica von Stade, plus some solo arias) and doesn’t feel that being inducted to the Hall of Fame or receiving other lifetime achievement awards means that her career is over. She says without regret that her recitals and teaching are an extension of her career and not an epilogue.
She concedes, “never again being able to sing ‘Arabella,’ that will be a sadness, or ‘Capriccio,’ those are the things I miss; but the time comes and you have to accept that.”
She insists that she’s not looking for new operatic roles, even as she looks forward to working with composer Jake Heggie at an upcoming master class. Heggie is known for his ability to woo star sopranos by writing roles for them.
“I know my own limits of perfection,” she says firmly, but later smiles, “you never say never.”