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Sunday, June 5, 2011

A night at the operas

Kiri Te Kanawa

The great New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa will give a rare recital in Jerusalem this weekend

At the start of the 1980s the phone rang in the London home of soprano Kiri Te Kanawa. On the line was her agent. "Kiri," he said, "Charles wants you to sing at his wedding.

"Charles?" she answered. "Which Charles?"

"Charles Windsor," came the answer.

"I don't know any Charles Windsor," replied Te Kanawa before the penny dropped: of course - Prince Charles. Her singing at the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981, in a live broadcast watched by 600 million television viewers around the world, was one of the peaks in the career of Te Kanawa, the greatest diva of our times.

The Israel Festival will offer a rare opportunity to hear her in a recital this coming Saturday at the Jerusalem International Convention Center (Binyanei Hauma ) at 9:30 P.M. The singer, born in 1944, is gradually leaving the concert stage. "I am anticipating the visit to Israel with great excitement," said Te Kanawa in a short telephone conversation from Denmark, where she has just wound up a concert tour. "I will sing the program I sang here: songs and arias by Handel, Richard Strauss, Jake Heggie - who wrote the operas 'Dead Man Walking' and 'Moby Dick' - and Terry McNally."

The music of Richard Strauss was Te Kanawa's specialty during the period when she starred on the great opera stages - the New York Metropolitan, Covent Garden in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco and the Bastille, La Scala and Glyndebourne Operas. Particularly memorable is her immortal rendition of "Four Last Songs," conducted by Georg Solti.

For quite some time you haven't been singing opera. Why?

Te Kanawa laughs: "After the age of 60 there are some things you can't do any more and among them is opera. The singing of opera has to be left for the young - and there are so many talented young people now."

Kiri Te Kanawa was born in New Zealand to Maori ancestors. As an infant she was adopted by a Western mother and a Maori father, and she is known for her special affinity to her people and her support of them.

Are you still very connected to the Maori people?

"Very connected, and to the musical life of New Zealand in general, and I am supportive insofar as it is possible to be supportive from a distance."

Her mother was the first to teach her to sing and dreamed that one day she would become a professional singer. Te Kanawa indeed sang successfully and became a popular pop singer in New Zealand. She competed in every possible singing contest around the country and won most of them, and also traveled to contests in neighboring Australia, which she also won. Working as a secretary and switchboard operator, she managed to save enough money to study singing in London when she was 20.

She has come a long way from those days when she was a young girl with no classical music education to the title awarded her by Queen Elizabeth II (Dame Kiri is her official title ).

Te Kanawa's voice is one of a kind in the world of sopranos. It is a deep, warm voice, brilliant in its nuances and always human - even at the high operatic stretches that sometimes make women's' voices sound mechanical and alienated. Other famous landmarks in her career were two films: Jospeh Losey's "Don Giovanni" based on Mozart's opera, in which she played Donna Elvira - a noble, wounded and tempestuous woman, full of life and overflowing both with love and humor; and the documentary film on the recording of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story," at the premiere conducted by the composer himself.

This cinematic-musical masterpiece revealed new sides of Te Kanawa's personality and her voice: Her broad stylistic range, from Mozart to Wagner and from Handel and Bach to the 20th century extends here as far as the American musical and also the sweetness and rhythm she is capable of expressing, qualities that get extra emphasis in this work from the world of light music - qualities that were also evident in other musicals in which she has sung: "South Pacific" and "My Fair Lady."

Last September in Hyde Park, about 30 years after that recording, she returned for a live concert in front of tens of thousands of viewers in the Proms festival, together with her recording partner Jose Carreras - two voices that became engraved as the symbol of the impossible love between Tony and Maria in the musical.

In the Jerusalem recital Te Kanawa will be joined by a young baritone, also of Maori origin. "I am bringing him to Israel. It's important to me to present the talented young people to the audience," she says. "Agents and opera houses don't always find the right singers and my aim, both in the master classes I hold around the world and in the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation I have established, is to present these great young talents to the world."

The results of the efforts of the New Zealand-based foundation are already evident on the opera scene in that country, and in the education and presentation of young singers throughout the world.

This is Te Kanawa's second visit to Israel, and she speaks well of her first concert here and the country in general. According to her this is also because of the Israeli connection of her first teacher, the great Hungarian Jewish teacher Vera Rozsa.

Recently there have been appeals to you on the Internet to boycott Israel for political reasons. Does this disturb you?

Te Kanawa is obviously surprised: "This is the first time I've heard about it. The appeals haven't reached me at all."

Masada Opera Festival in Israel with El Al

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