Silent treatment

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 December, 2007, 12:00am

I last interviewed Dame Kiri Te Kanawa at the Peninsula hotel in 1996, just before a recital that she suggested might be her last professional appearance in Hong Kong. The legendary New Zealand soprano said she planned to start winding down a career that had taken in all the world's greatest opera houses and concert halls as well as huge venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and the desert outback of Australia.

She wanted, she said at the time, to spend more time fishing, being with family and exploring the Bay of Islands in her native New Zealand. Eleven years on, however, it seems that that was not enough.

'I've done a lot of all of those in the past decade or so,' says Te Kanawa, now aged 63, as she prepares for two performances with the Hong Kong Philharmonic at the Cultural Centre. 'And I've given up performing in full operas. But I have kept on singing.'

As well as the fishing and the recitals - which she has been said to have been best in the world at - Te Kanawa has also spent a great deal of time in the past four years setting up a foundation for young New Zealand singers.

So far it has helped three young musicians to attend prestigious courses in Europe, and one opera teacher who went to Britain for three months to learn more about what British schools expect from young singers. It has also given travel scholarships to enable talented New Zealanders to attend auditions in New York or Europe, for example by providing air fares, and has raised a substantial endowment already, to ensure that it will be able to continue far into the future.

'When I started singing we had none of this,' Te Kanawa says, referring to schemes such as the Metropolitan Opera Young Artist Programme in New York, or the International Opera School in London, as well as her own foundation.

'I was so lucky - my career went ahead faster than I was prepared for. But it's hard for young people today, and they are all in such a hurry.'

Would the opera scene - and the sense of young people being in a hurry for celebrity - be helped or hindered by having a Pop Idol-type TV programme - Op Idol perhaps?

'The trouble is that with programmes like Simon Cowell's, you see the winners for 20 months and then you don't hear from them again. With the classical world it's not fast like that.'

First of all, TV competitions attract microphone singers: 'The public have no idea if they can actually sing.' Secondly, they tend to prioritise looks. 'If Il Divo were ugly would they do so well?' she asks. And thirdly, they don't take into consideration the fact that opera voices take a long time to mature.

However, if Op Idol wouldn't work, Te Kanawa does nevertheless approve of competitions: they were one of the ways she got noticed in her own career.

'You have to sing against other types of singers; and you have to be put into areas of high stress; it is excellent practice.'

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the foundation, as far as Te Kanawa is concerned, has been the opportunity for mentoring.

'They know where I am ... I've talked to most of them. I spent the day yesterday with one of the singers ... I'll talk about any problems: personal, private, financial, vocal, career.'

If her advice can be summed up in three points it would be these: keep working hard, develop a good technique ('I try to get them to use a technique I have of supporting the notes through singing on air') and, paradoxically for a profession that relies on sound, nurture the ability to be silent.

'The quieter you are the better,' the singer says. 'It takes a lot of quiet ... When the young singers left yesterday I sat by the fire for a while ... and it was peaceful.'

Her desire for quiet is sometimes problematic: piped music is ubiquitous in hotels, lifts and particularly restaurants and it drives her to distraction. On occasion it almost drives her out of restaurants - tough if you live on the road.

In her concert in Hong Kong this pre-Christmas weekend she will be performing a programme that is sure to be quite unlike that restaurant experience - with some extremely promising first bites that include arias by Mozart, Richard Strauss, Bellini and Charpentier.

Moments before this interview I talked to her publicist. 'Are there any questions I shouldn't ask?'

I wondered casually.

'Not really,' she said, then paused. 'Oh there is one thing ... a few weeks ago Dame Kiri gave a press conference where somebody asked her what was the difference between Mozart and Strauss ... that wasn't a good question. I wouldn't advise asking that one.'

The soprano had responded in a characteristically dry manner to what was clearly a bewildering question for any musician. 'About 100 years' was her answer. The questioner probably wouldn't have lasted a full interview.

So are there any particular favourites among the pieces she will be singing in Hong Kong? 'I only ever sing my favourites,' she says, drily, and I felt a little as if I had asked the dreaded 'difference between Strauss and Mozart' question.

'I look at a group of songs, and I see which ones might go well in a particular concert ... and then I choose them, but I only ever do songs that I love.'

And were there any that remind her of anything in particular, about her past perhaps? Perhaps she might mention how in 1971 she was cast as the Countess in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden and it knocked the place flat, and that whenever she sings the aria Porgi Amor she thinks of that first concert.

Or perhaps she might talk about the late 1970s when she was first asked to play the role of another Countess, the widow in Richard Strauss' opera Capriccio who is asked to choose between a poet and a composer; that too became a role for which she has been celebrated ever since.

'No,' says Te Kanawa. 'They don't remind me of anything in particular. And when I sing them

I have images in my mind, but they are not necessarily the same images each time ... As I said, they are all favourites.'

But whatever the similarities, or differences, between the two composers whose songs she has chosen, and whatever the images they conjure up, these two concerts next Friday and Sunday might be the final opportunity for Hong Kong audiences to hear one of the grande dames of international opera singing some of her favourite arias.

Or it might not.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performs with the Hong Kong Philharmonic conducted by Julian Reynolds. Dec 21 and 23, 8pm, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, HK$180-HK$880 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2721 2030