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‘I never thought I’d be 80′: Dame Kiri reflects ahead of a milestone birthday

One of New Zealand’s finest musical exports, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, has a voice that has taken her all over the world.

After earning New Zealand’s first-ever gold record, she went on to perform at Prince Charles’ and Princess Diana’s royal wedding. More recently, fans enjoyed a cameo appearance on the British TV show Downtown Abbey.

Since retiring in 2017, Dame Kiri has dedicated herself to supporting up-and-coming opera singers through the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation.

She joins us from her home in the Bay of Islands ahead of her milestone 80th birthday on Wednesday 6 March, to play her favourite tracks, offering a rare insight into the woman behind the voice.

Interview highlights

On retired life in the Bay of Islands:

I thought I’d retired [but] I only retired and stopped singing. Now I’ve got a very full life. And I have great fun just talking to the students in London. I’m talking to the foundation there and the foundation here. Life is still very, very busy on both sides of the world.

On moving back to New Zealand:

The move was because of Covid. I thought was I going to see my grandson grow up? And I thought I wasn’t going to see him for two or three years. So I decided that this is the best thing to do, come back, sell up everything. I think I would have done it anyway, but it was going to not be right then. And even looking back, I’m thinking it’s still the right decision. Being aged 80, how many more summers have I got? So I thought let me have those summers back here with my little [grandson] Luther and have fun with him.

On her love of Scotland:

I’m associated a lot with Scotland. I sang in Scotland, and I’ve been in Scotland on all sorts of occasions. We’re going to visit Scotland again, in the summer, to go on a cruise on the Hebridean Princess, which is one of my most favourite little cruises. I’m not a great cruisy person. But this one is only 40 passengers and it’s stunning.

On what she misses about the UK:

I just keep on saying couldn’t I just have Marks and Spencers down the end of the lane? That would just be good enough.

On the discipline required to stay at the top:

People would ask me to come to a reception after a concert and I’d say ‘Look, I’ll come for a few minutes’. I have to stay away from everything in order to have my voice in good shape for the next concert. So everything was being protected as I went along and I was very considered. The singers I see today, they’re sitting at receptions ... ‘Go home’, I’d say, ‘for God’s sake go home. Don’t waste another sound of your voice on a reception. Do what you have to do but go home and always make sure your voice is in good shape’.

On the driving forces in her life:

I had very good teachers, I had very good coaches, teachers, managers, everything. But most of all, I had a singing teacher who was Hungarian, and she went through the war. I remember I brought her a loaf of bread once and she said ‘Kiri, I once had only a raw onion and your bread has reminded me of what I went through during those times of trying to escape’. So she had that drive, whether it be the war or me, but that sort of thing was in her along with [Hungarian-British conductor] Sir Georg Solti who once again, was in the war and escaped as well. So I had two people who were survivors and they made sure that I was going to also do this job and make it, not survive it but make it. And they were always driving me, driving me constantly.

On being impatient:

I have a very short fuse, I’m a very impatient person. If it’s not going fast enough, nothing is going fast enough. So of course I’m impatient. I went the other day to the shop and this man said, ‘If my wife was here, she’d be able to tell you.’ I said, ‘She’s not here, I’m in a hurry, I need this stuff’. So that’s me, I have no time to waste on finding out how to find the thing in the shop. If I go to a shop that hasn’t got the right thing in the right place, I just go crazy because I think I’m only in here for two seconds to get whatever I’m going to get and it’s not in the right place. That’s the sort of thing that that makes me, I suppose, aggravating. I’m impatient and I wish I wasn’t.

On balancing a successful career with parenting:

It’s very difficult to have an international career. But I did it for quite a while and sadly my marriage did fall to pieces. So that was one of those things. But my children are older now and I think they understand ... hopefully.

On singing Verdi’s ‘Ave Maria’ from Otello:

I stepped in at the Metropolitan Opera at two hours’ notice and sang the opera completely through and made it. I remember singing ‘Ave Maria’ and I thought ‘My god, I’ve come to the end of the opera, I’ve made it, I didn’t fall off the cliff and I’ve sung the bejesus out of it.’ And I thought ‘this is not bad’.

On working with the American conductor Leonard Bernstein:

It was very exciting. We went to his home and, and we sat there while he smoked and smoked and I’m thinking ‘I’m going to die from this’ but still he smoked and smoked. He was more nervous than us, I think to start, because he had all his people there, all the people that he’d chosen, and he just had to put the first baton beat down and he didn’t. Someone said ‘Come on, Lenny. Let’s start. Let’s start’. So he did. I sang about three notes and they were corrected in two seconds, I can’t remember what they were. But I remember being corrected very quickly by him. So he was in the right mode but he did take a little time to start.

On celebrating her 80th birthday:

I’m hoping to go fishing on my day. But the Governor General’s putting on a cocktail party for me, about 70 guests, which will be very, very nice. There are lots of celebrations going on. And in London, there’s Classic FM doing a big interview with me. I’m going to enjoy it because I mean, I never thought I’d be 80. So I’m busy thinking about what’s going to happen in the next 10 years, I just got a new puppy. She’s going to last for 10 years so I have to last 10 years.

On singing at Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding:

I’m not sure if it changed my life because I was already well into a career at that time. But I suppose it did change my life in that it gave me this amazing ... a bit of a pinnacle, I suppose. You’re on a bit of a pinnacle no one else can get on, if you know what I mean, because not too many people have done something like that. There have been other royal weddings but nothing quite like our future king. And I look back and I think it was an amazing, amazing day. And I’m there in the history books, which is pretty amazing.

On Māori culture:

When I left New Zealand in 1966 I was Kiri Te Kanawa and I went overseas and I was known as a New Zealander and I was Māori, which was sort of unique. I’ve come back to New Zealand to find that I am a Māori and Māori is being spoken when it was not spoken before I left. I’m thrilled that Māori is spoken on a regular basis.

On her life so far:

I go back over my life, which I do on a regular basis, because I’m always being asked about the past. And I’m always going back. There are always pictures, people sending me pictures. My daughter sent me a bunch of pictures the other day, which I haven’t seen in years, I thought it was lovely that she’s had all these pictures of me. My life is always there in the past and I always know about it. There’s pictures to prove it, people talk about it, people wanting to talk about my life, which is really lovely. And I’m thrilled that people are actually interested.

On the upsides of getting older:

You can say what you want. You can do what you want. And if you don’t like it, you tell them you don’t like it. I think there’s no grey area anymore. There’s no time for it.

Listen to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s interview.