Te Kanawa sidesteps opera's craziness

Grace sustains diva, on stage and off

October 19, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Beauty may be, as the title character of Samuel Barber's 1958 opera Vanessa puts it, "the hardest gift to keep." But some folks manage to keep it awfully well. Just check out the soprano in that role when the Washington Opera opens its production of Barber's moody work tonight.

She's Kiri Te Kanawa - Dame Kiri, by rights, since Queen Elizabeth gave her that honor in 1982, the year after she sang for the Lady Diana/Prince Charles wedding before a TV audience of 600 million. Te Kanawa's rare combination of physical and vocal beauty have long made her one of the opera world's favorite artists. Her lack of pretense hasn't hurt, either.

"Kiri is not only a wonderful singer and musician, but a delight to work with," says Placido Domingo, the superstar tenor who also serves as artistic director of the Washington Opera. "She is in every sense a lady."

The same can be said, more or less, about the lonely creature at the center of Vanessa.

Based on a Gothic tale by Isak Dinesen, the libretto - by composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who was living with Barber when the opera was written - is about an aristocratic woman who waits more than 20 years for the return of her great love. That lover never does come back before dying, but his son does. The son ends up marrying Vanessa, after first seducing and devastating her niece. At the end, the niece is left alone to wait for the return of her great love.

"She's very well adjusted," Te Kanawa says of Vanessa. "She's just crazy, that's all."

Crazy types have not figured too much into this lyric soprano's career, which was launched in 1971 with a performance of the Countess in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at London's Royal Opera House. Te Kanawa went on to become an exquisite Countess in Richard Strauss' Capriccio and Marschallin in his Der Rosenkavalier, not to mention a refined interpreter of the tragic heroines in operas by Verdi and Puccini.

Given all the standard Italian and German repertoire that has filled her calendar, Te Kanawa's appearance in a 1958 American opera may raise an eyebrow. Even she was surprised at the idea, when it was first suggested a few years ago by opera director John Cox for a 2001 production in Monte Carlo.

"I had heard of Samuel Barber, of course," the New Zealand-born, half-Maori soprano says, "and I knew some of his songs, but was not completely taken with them. But I thought, well, OK, maybe I could relate to the opera. And Monte Carlo has a nice small theater, which seemed ideal, since Vanessa is such a theatrical piece."

That initial performance led to the invitation to repeat the role in Washington, where her director is Steven Lawless.

"I suppose Vanessa may seem like an odd role choice for her," Lawless says, "but I don't think so at all. It's highly neurotic music and sort of a highly neurotic central part. Kiri is an intuitive actress. She has an empathy for this character, and is highly emotional in the role. The part clearly means a lot to her."

Te Kanawa agrees.

"This is something I've really attached myself to," she says. "There are things in it I didn't realize I could do. I got more deeply into the workings of it. This is a very, very dark piece. It's almost as if Barber had lived this story. There must have been something dark between Menotti and Barber. I wonder what there was in their relationship, if this came out of it."

In addition to dealing with the dramatic side of the assignment, the soprano faced some purely technical challenges on the vocal side. Famed for her creamy top notes - "I love her voice, especially the unbelievable ease of the high floating register," Domingo says - Te Kanawa has to dive frequently into the low range as Vanessa.

"I had a lot of difficulties with that," Te Kanawa says.

She asked the Washington Opera Orchestra to raise its pitch for the performances, tuning to a higher-than-normal frequency. They didn't agree to go quite as high as she wanted, but did "tweak it up a little" for her. Not that she would want to make life difficult for the rest of the cast.

"Of course, I had to think of my colleagues," she says. "And I have wonderful colleagues here; you can have some really dreadful ones."

Te Kanawa knows that all too well. Stories abound about her run-in with mega-prima donna Kathleen Battle years ago at the Metropolitan Opera. How is it that Te Kanawa has remained so normal, while other gifted sopranos have ended up prone to quirks and temper tantrums?

"I think they have a predisposition," she says. "They were already monstrous; they're just reverting to type. Their name sometimes gives you a clue, if you know what I mean."

It may well be her even-keeled nature, as much as her innate musical gift, that has helped Te Kanawa stay in such remarkable shape - artistically, physically and mentally.

"I'm 58," she says. "The voice is not too bad. A lot of my colleagues gave up 10 years ago."

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