There was a certain symmetry when New Zealander Dame Kiri Te Kanawa played Australia's Dame Nellie Melba on Downton Abbey.
And it was her second project with the inimitable Dame Maggie Smith – Dame Kiri provided the sublime Puccini piece, famous on the soundtrack of the magnificent A Room with a View.
Dame Kiri was 70 on March 6 and is celebrating her first septuagenarian year with a grand concert tour, including the Sydney Opera House on May 20.
"I'm an ordinary country girl", who happens to have had an extraordinary career for 46 years, singing for kings and queens and presidents and earning a reputation for not suffering fools.
She was on the phone from her home near Lewes in the Sussex Downs. She spoke of her career highs and lows, her passion for encouraging young talent, the racism of her youth, but lost her reserve when the conversation turned to her children and the price they inevitably have paid for her career.
And I was, needlessly, but unavoidably, terrified of appearing the grand fool when interviewing her . . .
❏ There's a perception of you as a performer – you come across as not stiff and starchy but relaxed and accessible, which no doubt gives you a shortcut into people's hearts. Surely in the business of singing that would be as vital as technique and ability?
Um. I need to tell you I'm an ordinary person, I'm a country girl and I like ordinary things, I don't have illusions of anything – grandeur or anything. So I s'pose I come over as, I don't know, just like that. I hope I do.
Indeed. Your career has not been contained by or confined to opera houses and you have grasped lots of opportunities to embrace popular culture, giving you a far wider public perhaps than many other singers in your position. Such as your first project with Maggie Smith. Your contribution to A Room with a View was the crowning element that made the whole film so sublime. How did it happen for you?
A few things happened. They wanted a voice and a producer who did my recordings knew about me and put my name up. Wheels within wheels.
What did you think of the film the first time you saw it?
I saw it in New York and I just loved it. Ahhh. And I loved my music, too; it worked very well. I thought that's very nice, a nice voice! [Laughs] And it was a very, very lovely film, with great actors.
Dame Kiri sings the Babbino in A Room with a View (02.26):
Indeed. And your most recent project, ironically again with Maggie Smith, is another example of you embracing popular culture. How did Downton Abbey happen for you?
Downton happened because I met Julian Fellowes [the show's creator, writer and producer] many years ago down here where I live [Sussex Downs, England] and recently, by chance, he asked me to play the part. He's a very nice person. Of course I couldn't refuse could I?! Not really.
Downton happened because I met Julian Fellowes many years ago and recently, by chance, he asked me to play the part. I couldn't refuse could I?! Not really.
You didn't appear on screen with Maggie Smith but you crossed paths?
Yes, we did. She's wonderful. Well, they're all wonderful. The whole cast was wonderful.
Preview Dame Kiri's Downton episode (00.31):
Your Maori heritage you've said is very important to you and singing is one of the hallmarks of Maori culture. The Maori people must be as proud of you as you are to be Maori.
Very much, yes, but I think my whole country is very proud of me, as I am proud to be a New Zealander, too. It all works in a circle.
Did you grow up with a strong sense of Maori culture?
Not really. My father of course is Maori. At the time when I grew up, Maori were, gosh, it was a very different situation to what it is now. Now it's very accepted. The language is accepted. When I was growing up it wasn't. The Maori were not accepted. And, of course, that's why the Maori people suffered with their education 'cos they didn't really cater to them being bilingual so they had difficulty with their education. It's completely different now.
When I grew up the Maori were not accepted. Nasty things happened. I was sent home from a birthday party because I was the only girl in the school not invited. You develop a thick skin, hopefully.
My adopted daughter is Maori. I have encouraged her to visit her family in New Zealand and value her heritage.
Oh, how amazing! That is wonderful.
How did growing up in a culture that wasn't accepted affect you as a young girl?
You know something, I s'pose it's one of those things. You just waft through. You just go through it. Ah, it didn't seem to affect me. There were nasty things that happened. I remember being sent home from a birthday party because I was the only girl in the school not invited.
Oh my God. That very same thing happened to my own daughter in a Catholic primary school here in Sydney.
Ohhhh. [sigh] Oh, dear. And I remember being called a half-caste, I remember being called a Mowwwwwrie. I look back and did it really matter? I'm not affected by it. You develop a thick skin, hopefully.
You have a new album, Wiata. Is there a particular song on there you especially love to sing?
I think they're all lovely but of course Whaakaria Mai is a very favoured song – it's everybody's favourite, that is, How Great Thou Art. I love that piece. It's gorgeous.
Dame Kiri talks about the new album (03.53):
The tyranny of distance has long been a factor for singers from the antipodes right back to Melba. The world has shrunk in terms of travel which is now so easy and in terms of technology which puts good music and performance into the hands of everybody. Yet, especially here in Australia, we still have the cultural cringe. How do you inspire confidence in the young singers you mentor in your foundation?
You know you'd be quite surprised if you met these young people. They're so focused. They don't see there are problems. Or if there are problems they don't want to know. They're so focused on what they want to do and I leave it up to them.
There's a story on your website of how you were actually pleased a young singer didn't take a particular prize in a recent competition. You were just happy for him to have the experience of competing. But there's a moment, you said, when many singers face an audience and say to themselves "Do I run or do I sing!"
That affects anybody who does anything publicly, even journalists. What do you say to your students to get them back into the moment and forget their fears?
Well, there was another singer of mine who really almost lost the faith. I said to him believe, believe in yourself. It's very hard when nothing is happening but it happened for him – this is another singer, completely different from the one you mentioned – and now he has a two-year contract in the German Opera. He's got so much work coming in he says "Oh my God, I can't cope". I said "Call me when you're having a problem, I'll tell you how to cope." The most important thing is to focus and make sure you're singing well and you're healthy. That's all we care about.
One of the inescapable truths is that many of your young singers won't make it to the same standard you have.
That's true. Yes, that's true.
How can you counsel young people that perhaps the goal is not to become rich and famous or a star? How can you shield them from the disappointment of perhaps not reaching the pinnacle they desire?
The singers we are backing at the moment are all in very, very good shape, very focused, having very good critique. They're very positive with the opera houses and all the people who matter. They have the right agents. But there are some who have come through, I look at them and I say "Please be honest, know that maybe it's not going to happen for you." There are quite often other ones I'm not backing, ah, though I can't really say that to them. The ones we are backing are in good shape. The ones we are not backing are not so good.
You said in another particularly honest moment you would've been a better parent if you hadn't pursued your career. Surely, that wasn't an option?
Ohhh, gosh. Ahhh. Ask many parents, you know, we're all, we're all either learning it for the first time or . . . I used to say to my daughter "This is my first time as a parent". It's very difficult to say should I or shouldn't I? I talk to my daughter now who was the one who said: "Oh Mum, you were never there for me." I said: "I was there as much as I could be." She now looks back and she says "No, you were, you were there." Um, and she says "I know you loved us" but she said sometimes it was difficult. It was terribly, terribly difficult and even now you're mentioning it it breaks my heart that I couldn't always be there for my children. And it's every, every parent who says that. And no matter how many hours . . . I think even if I'd been there 24 hours it would never have been enough, never! And I look back now and it's one of my big regrets.
'Oh, Mum, you were never there for me.' But I was there as much as I could be. It was terribly, terribly difficult and even now it breaks my heart. It's one of my big regrets.
Of course, the truth is you can be there 24 hours and still not be there.
Yes, exactly. And to have the career I had was extraordinary and I don't know what the answer is and I really wouldn't even want some sort of psychologist or psychiatrist to tell me, you know, "you damaged yourself", "you damaged your children". I did, as every parent will say, I did the best I could.
Speaking for myself, most of us inadvertently damage our children one way or another. It's the good things we try so hard to put in which are more important.
Well, my children were over here for my 70th birthday just this last month. They were absolutely wonderful. It was the most precious and gorgeous time I'd had with them for quite a while because we haven't always been together. It was special and there was a lot of family love there so I felt like, you know, I hadn't done it . . . I hadn't been too bad!
I'm not patting myself on the back. My kids were brought up over here, went to school over here. Now they're a little older and they came here last month and one went off to Paris and one went off to Barcelona, on their own, hired cars, and would arrive at two or three o'clock in the morning. It was perfect. I didn't worry, not for one moment, whereas before, before when they left for New Zealand and Australia, I was terrified something would happen to them! They're fabulous children. I'm so lucky. Both adopted of course, the most fabulous children. [Dame Kiri herself is adopted.]
Dame Kiri talks to Ian about being a working mum (02.52):
What pieces have you chosen for your Australian tour because you just enjoy them and what have you elected to sing because you know your audience want to hear it?
The audience always want Puccini, so I've chosen to do that. I've chosen some lighter songs, some folk songs and one or two just fun songs so, hopefully, we'll do a couple of songs that are new to people. It's just an enjoyable program and hopefully the audience will love what I'm doing.
Will there be any flexibility in what you perform from city to city or will it be the same program?
It will be exactly the same unless I look and I think, hmm, we've got some other songs here. Nothing, nothing's set in stone.
And when you said you'll sing Puccini you do mean O Mio Babbino Caro?
The Babbino, yes! Of course! Why not?!
You never get sick of singing it?
No, I don't because it always affects people in all sorts of ways and everyone loves it.
How do you sing the same song again and again and again and still find that truth and emotional core?
That's because in the centre of it I love it and I really enjoy feeling the music, hearing the music, and of course I just love Puccini. He's very singable. I'm doing some Handel, and I'm doing some French songs, and Spanish songs, and folksongs. And a modern one.
Does everything always go smoothly when you perform?
I was in a performance once in Brisbane and we had a power cut. And we've had a very small earthquake and another power cut in another hall, a brand new hall. Nothing too drastic.
Well a small earthquake is pretty drastic. Where did that happen?
Japan, I think. Things were shaking. I remember someone saying, like my mother says, Oh for God's sake, stop making such a fuss. Stand under the doorway. [laughs]. And, of course, earthquakes aren't like that! My mother would just sit there in her chair and say: "Oh stop being so stupid. It's nothing. It'll go soon."
What sort of feedback do you enjoy most from your audiences?
That they love the music. When questions and answers come up they're never what I expect. I was doing questions and answers the other day and the questions were What's my favourite opera? What's my favourite song? What's my favourite theatre? Not, you know, how do you get to all these places without your children? How do you move to a new apartment and cope with the next six weeks without them? Never those questions. Never the bits I really hated. ❏
May 10-11: Melbourne Recital Centre – ticketek.com.au or 132 849
May 13: Perth Concert Hall – ticketek.com.au or 132 849
May 16: Canberra Llewellyn Hall – ticketek.com.au or 132 849
May 18: Adelaide Festival Theatre – bass.net.au or 131 246
May 20: Sydney Opera House – sydneyoperahouse.com or 9250 7777 or ticketek.com.au or 132 849
■ Kiri Te Kanawa on allmusic.
■ Kiri Te Kanawa on IMDb.
■ Read Ian's other interviews:
Boy George for King of Everything – King George, the Boy grows up
Danny Trejo for Machete Kills – 'I got Gaga her movie role with Gloria and me!'
Review of Privates on Parade – Parading your Privates
Review of Twists and Turns cabaret – Matthew Mitcham drops his dacks
Simon Vowles for Queens of the Outback – A frock and a rock hit town!
Nick Atkins for A Boy & A Bean – Jack, the giant killer
Matthew Mitcham for Twists and Turns cabaret – Matthew – all singing, all talking, all dancing!
Debbie Reynolds for Behind the Candelabra – What a glorious feelin’, I’m workin’ again
Lily Tomlin for Web Therapy – Lily caught in Phoebe's web!
Todd McKenney for Grease – Todd’s got chills, they’re multiplyin’
Matthew Rhys for The Scapegoat – Seeing double – and the Walkers' wine was real!
Casey Donovan for Mama Cass tribute – Casey has found her own idol
Amanda Muggleton for The Book Club – A book club for those who'd rather laugh than read!
Rachel Griffiths for Magazine Wars – We owe a big debt to Ita and Dulcie
Simon Burke for Mrs Warren’s Profession – A timeless take on the oldest profession
Ellen's mum, Betty DeGeneres on marriage equality – Not supporting gay marriage is bullying
Amanda Muggleton for Torch Song Trilogy – Amanda returns to the spotlight
Matthew Mitcham for Twists and Turns book – He couldn't believe it would last – it didn't