Kiri Te Kanawa urges students to find their voice and stick to it

Arts Scene

Teacher and performer to sing Saturday in D.C.

  • Soprano Kiri Te Kanawa's recital Saturday at the Kennedy Center is likely to be her last appearance in the region.
Soprano Kiri Te Kanawa's recital Saturday at the Kennedy… (Baltimore Sun )
November 10, 2009|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

"I'm 65," says Kiri Te Kanawa, the golden-toned, New Zealand-born soprano. "I can't say the voice sounds like it did at 35. But as long as I do music that suits me, I'm fine. If you're a size 12 you don't try to wear a size 8, do you? You'd look very stupid."

Te Kanawa, whose flair for straight talking is as much a part of her persona as her ever-glamorous appearance, will give a recital at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. It's likely to be the last time people in this region will get a chance to hear the star whose popularity went from great to giga after she sang at the globally televised wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981.

There's still some opera in Te Kanawa's future. That includes the speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp in Donizetti's comedy "The Daughter of the Regiment" at the Metropolitan Opera in February (count on her to slip in some singing), and other "fun things I can do at this age," says Te Kanawa, who was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1982. And she's scheduled to reprise one of her signature roles, the Marschallin in Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," next year in Cologne.

As her performance schedule thins, the soprano's teaching activity increases.

Five years ago, she formed the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation to foster New Zealand singers. She's also founding artistic director of the Solti Te Kanawa Accadamia di Bel Canto, a summer program in Italy for young vocalists. And she frequently gives master classes, as she will Thursday for members of Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.

"I will keep working with my young students," Te Kanawa says by phone from England, "making sure that the next generation does not have careers that only last a few short years and they're asking themselves what happened."

She passes on advice she heard when she was starting out.

"In 1969, my voice teacher told me. 'You have a certain sound and we'll build on that,' " Te Kanawa says. "We each have our own unique voice, and we have to search for it. You can't try to sound like someone else."

The discipline required for a successful career is something Te Kanawa also knows well: "I told one of my students, 'You will make all your mistakes in your first year. You've got to try not to repeat them.' I did them all, all the naughty things."

Te Kanawa naughty? Is there a tabloid-worthy revelation here? Not exactly.

"I had nothing to do with drugs or smoking or anything like that. But I was lazy," she says with a laugh, "going off shopping when I should have been studying."

The soprano is still studying. She has a stack of songs and arias she wants to learn for future concerts. And she keeps her voice in shape between performances by demonstrating for her students. "Giving lessons is perfect for my voice," she says. "After six hours, I'm in top form."

One thing Te Kanawa's students are not likely to hear are encouraging words about doing pop music, even though she made her share of crossover recordings in the 1980s. "You have to keep it at a higher level," she says. "We should remain true to our classical roots. And just because you can sing 'My Way' in Italian doesn't mean you're an opera singer."

As for her own career of four decades, Te Kanawa sums it up simply. "There were many, many sacrifices," she says, "but I've been very blessed in every single way."

Kiri Te Kanawa, accompanied by pianist Brian Zeger, will sing works by Handel, Liszt, Strauss, and others at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Kennedy Center. Tickets are $55 to $110. Call 202-785-9727 or go to wpas.org.

Art on campus
"Mixed Signals: Artists Consider Masculinity in Sports" offers photographs and mixed-media works by 15 artists addressing the socio-cultural issues of competitive sports. The show runs through Dec. 12 at University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Center for Art, Design and Culture. Call 410-455-3188 or go to umbc.edu/arts.

And "Ambiguous Bodies" brings together pieces by 10 artists who have interpreted the human form in a variety of ways to address such concerns as beauty and bias. The exhibit runs through Dec. 13 at Goucher College's Silber Gallery. Call 410-337-6477 or go to goucher.edu.

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