Having gotten from being an aspiring opera singer in Gisborne, New Zealand, to become the First Lady of Opera by a commitment to education and hard work, she's sung the spectrum of soprano - from Die Zauberflöte (her first stage role) to South Pacific and from Faust to the two voices of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, playing so many lauded rolls that it would take a whole post to list them.
Today the Telegraph's Stephen Adams announced that when the opera-singer plays her beloved part of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier next April, it will be her last role.
However, what she's doing is just as interesting as what she's done. As well as being the first visiting teacher at Georg Solti's Accademia di Bel Canto (in which she is now a partner), the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation identifies and nurtures operatic talent in New Zealand, and also prepares scholars for larger cities with long-established opera scenes. One of Te Kanawa's first protegées, Ana James, states
NZ is severely lacking in both language and vocal coaching...Many Australasian singers who I studied with in London and NY have already fallen of the radar.Hving pointed to so-called "popera" stars like Kathryn Jenkins' and Hayley Westenra's reliance on microphones, Dame Kiri has insisted that the opera singers of the future need time to mature away from the demands of the "instant fame" culture of shows such as X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent.
I can see her point: there'll always be a place for somebody like Paul Potts, who finished his shift selling mobile phones then brought the house down on the latter show with his rendition of Nessun Dorma, but Susan Boyle's collapse from
nervous exhaustion after her shock loss on this year's series showed the risks of a process that is not nearly long enough to identify people whom it might harm more than help, whatever the outcome.
Heaven knows I met enough aspiring dancers using stimulants to control their weight as a drugs-worker, but Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation alumna Ana James indicates the same process is happening with opera-singers:
It would be sad to see the old adage that it ain't over till the fat lady sings become it's finished when the skeletal girl drops. I'm sure producers aren't looking for girls who are too hypoglycaemic to speak their own minds...are they?
Now, opera companies want to cast slim healthy singers. I think this can only be a good thing as it is unhealthy to be over your ideal weight and not to take exercise in any case. However, at the other end of the spectrum, I know of several anorexic singers, which I am sure was unheard of 20 years ago! This is a very sad situation because it can and does affect the voice, as well as weakens the body and mind. As a soprano I feel huge pressure to stay slim,toned, fit, and look as good as possible at all times. There will always be a slimmer, better soprano out there ready to take a job!!! I work out at the gym, do pilates, yoga at least three times a week (when at home!) and I eat healthily (no carbohydrates after 5pm).
Speaking one's own mind is something Te Kanawa has shown herself unafraid of doing. In 2003, she created a shockwave when she criticised welfare-dependency within the Māori culture from which she hails and about which she is as passionate as anything she devotes herself to. In a statement which isn't far from the reality on some housing estates I've lived in, she said,
I see too many people living on benefits... it just drives me mad. I've known someone, a Maori, who's been on a benefit for 37 years. Now what sort of pride is that?Dame Kiri will be bringing three of her Future Stars of Opera to perform with the London Sinfonia on October 16 as part of the Tower (of London) Festival.
After which, the world will remain her oyster.