There’s no stopping Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Despite being of pensionable age, the Gisborne-born soprano is still incredibly busy – and she wouldn’t want it any other way.
Currently calling Sussex, England, her home, Kiri’s main focuses are mentoring singers through the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation, and a stage and recording career that takes her around the world.
And although she is turning 70 in March next year, her future plans include a tour of Australia and New Zealand. But it’s her latest project, an album of all-Maori songs, that is particularly close to her heart.
“Waiata [available on November 15] has been in the making for many years,” says Kiri, who previously released a Maori song collection in 1999.
“After the first one, we thought we would do another one, but never got round to it. There was never enough time.
“It went on the back-burner, then suddenly we discovered more interesting songs, so we said, ‘Right, let’s do it.’”
The album, which is arranged by Kiwi musician Carl Doy and has performances from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and University of Auckland Chamber Choir, gave Kiri a chance to improve her Maori language skills and reconnect with an historical social issue that still affects her today.
“It was a wonderful project,” says Kiri, who spent five days in New Zealand recording it.
“I thought some of these were songs people hadn’t heard.”
Although Kiri was adopted as an infant by her Maori father, Thomas Te Kanawa, and his wife Nell, “Maoridom” means a lot to the singer.
“It’s my heritage. It’s my people – even though I was not brought up in the Maori world,” she explains.
“My father never spoke Maori, but he knew it. But way, way back in New Zealand, they were not allowed to speak [the language]. You go back and see why Maori were so uneducated. It was because they all spoke Maori and no-one ever provided for bilingual studies.
“So why did they have such difficulty when they first went into school? Because they couldn’t speak English. They weren’t allowed to speak Maori – in fact, they were absolutely forbidden. Now, of course, Maori is spoken everywhere. It’s wonderful.
“I understand it, but I don’t speak Maori, which is a shame. I don’t think I’ve embarrassed our language [on the album] – I hope. I would like to think it was very close.”
While recording comes at the end of a momentous 50 years in the industry, another string to her bow is to be revealed, with an appearance on TV show Downton Abbey [Prime, Monday, Nov 4, 8.35pm].
However, her cameo role as opera singer Nellie Melba, who is hired to perform at a house party, has sparked controversy. As Kiri performs, head housemaid Anna is raped downstairs by a visiting butler. But the Kiwi performer defends the scene.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god’, as I kept on going through the script. But if you look back at Downton, when it all started it was very beautiful. I love that gentleness. But there are new characters coming into the house and they have all been doing things differently. And there’s a lot more violence in general life, I would say.”
She’s a self-confessed Downton fan, so Kiri was thrilled to be given the opportunity.
“I am incredibly proud to be in it. And everyone was so gobsmacked that someone like me would get a day like that. It’s just amazing. Even in the village where I live, I go down to the pub and have dinner and they go, ‘Wow, you’re in Downton.’
“When Shirley MacLaine was in it, there was this whole American thing that went into it. And now, from my point of view, my tiny bit brings New Zealand into it too.”
But despite the kudos of hours sitting next to actors Dame Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville, Kiri has been reluctant to see the final result.
“We haven’t watched it yet,” says Kiri, who was unaware of the furore it had caused.
“I’m two episodes behind at the moment. I have kept on saying, ‘I can’t watch it, I can’t. There’s too much anticipation to seeing it. It’s too much to think about!’”
Nor is the celebrated singer keen to pursue a latter-stage career as an actress – tempting as it may be.
“I’m just happy to have done that one little bit. It was such a privilege that, at this time in my career, I was asked to be involved in such a wonderful programme. It really is.
“You look at things like the royal wedding. I’m there for life, I’m there in history. And this is another – a moment in history.”
It was back in 1981, in front of an estimated TV audience of 600 million people, that Kiri performed Handel’s Let the Bright Seraphim at the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.
By this time, Kiri had already established herself as an international star – and a glittering career lay ahead.
“My life has been nothing but touring,” she says. “If I’m not here, I’m there. If I’m not there, I’m here, so it’s never been in one place.
“My career hasn’t slowed down as much as I thought it would. It’s always been about where the job comes up. My life has always been touring. It’s never been stable”
The tough regime Kiri puts herself through has caught up with her, as a health scare forces her to take it easier.
Despite her busy schedule, she has managed to squeeze in time for a long-needed medical procedure and a couple of week’s recuperation.
“I’ve been living in my living room after a knee and foot operation,” says Kiri, who was only allowed tiny amounts of time on her feet.
“It’s all been about the stage work. It’s come to a head now, where I’ve had time to have the actual operation, whereas before you would just grin and bear the pain.
“I wonder how models can bear to stand in those shoes. I talked to the doctor about it – they actually take painkillers to do it. I’ve always worn an ordinary heel. I’ve always just wanted comfortable shoes, and that’s it. But comfortable shoes I couldn’t even wear in the last year or so. So this is the start.”
But Kiri is enjoying the downtime that immobility has given her, particularly when it comes to her dogs – three Pomeranian-Yorkshire terriers, Nyack, Millie and Abbey, named after Downton.
“My whole thing is now the dogs – it’s all about the dogs,” she says. “It used to be one, then I thought he might be a bit lonely so I got two, and now, of course, it’s the three bowls of food in the morning and afternoon.
“But it’s lovely,” she adds. “Before I had no time to do anything. It was just like every house I lived in was a dumping ground. You just dump things. Now I’m coming to terms with what I have dumped and I’m trying to get rid of as much stuff as I can.”
Not that Kiri will be sitting still for too long.
“No-one retires or you’re retiring from life, aren’t you?” she says forcefully.
“You’re always opening one door and closing another. For me that will be the students, the mentoring, and finding other ways for the students to survive I suppose.
“With orchestras, I say as long as you play the instrument, well, that’s what matters. With the voice, as long as it’s singing, that’s the important thing.
“My voice is still soprano – it doesn’t go into anything else. Sometimes a top note can go or some voices just go.
“You look at the body when it gets older, it’s just natural. I can still speak, can’t I? If you can still speak, you can sing – there’s no change.”
This month, Kiri is in Vienna for a three-week stint, performing as the Duchess of Krakenthorp in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment. She drove the 1000km journey so she could take the dogs.
“It was a small part that came up. I’m not about to do a full-scale opera. It’s for the young. You have to think about it. I’m nearly 70!”
“People ask me these questions [about the scale of her parts] and I think, ‘If they were 70 – though I’m not 70 yet, but I’m getting there – would they do the same thing?’
“You have to think about where I am and where I will be in five years or 10 years – and if someone asks me that same question when I’m 80, I’ll shoot them!
“You can’t do the job as efficiently as a younger person. You don’t have the energy.”
But Kiri is still on course to sing the same role at Covent Garden, London, on her landmark birthday next year.
“Did I think I’d be performing at 70? I don’t know. It came up and I said, ‘Yes,’” she explains.
“It happened to be there and it was a good chance so I said, ‘Yes’ – feeling that I am capable of doing it. Some other people at my age might think, ‘Well, I can’t do it’, but I feel I can.
“I’m in good health, but if the knees and the feet are going, your body’s telling you something. I don’t do parties, I eat well and have an outdoor lifestyle. I’m not a social butterfly – I’m not really social – and I’ve just worked all my life and tried to stay healthy. And I’m happy with what I do.”
Which begs the question of what Dame Kiri will do when she finally decides to slow down?
“There are a few things, but that’s in my own planning in my own mind. There are friends and there’s always things to do.
“My neighbour said, ‘We’re going up to Norfolk and we’re going to walk the blah, blah, blah, and I think, ‘I’ve never done that.’ I stop and think – ‘Maybe I should do that’ – but I don’t want to. I just want to stay here with my dogs. It’s too beautiful to leave.”
Her students, she admits, will always play a big part in her life, and after 50 years of her career, she is keen to help them as much as she possibly can.
“I think it’s tougher for the young people today. The classical world is much more difficult. We used to be treated wonderfully, but it is really suffering.
“My own treatment was wonderful. I had the golden times. Someone said to me, ‘If those were golden times, I wish someone had told me. I would have enjoyed them more.’ But I think I have enjoyed them and I’ve been very lucky.”
“I might not finish next year, but I don’t want to plan another year. If I plan it, I will plan it my way,” she adds decisively.
“I’ve lived here [in England] since 1966, but coming and going. I’ve lived in the US, but I always like to spend a lot of time in New Zealand too. I have a home in the beautiful Bay of Islands.”
“I still enjoy my job and I do a lot because I am so proud of being a New Zealander. I’m very proud of my country and I’m very proud that it’s such a small country at the end of the world and it does so well.”
“We are blessed with some wonderful talent in our country, great designers and artists – even not quite winning the recent America’s Cup… well, they were close. And it has been won by New Zealand. We have a lot of good people.”
Images from Getty.