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Brave new world

The first voice that the world will hear as the year 2000 begins will be that of Kiri Te Kanawa. As the dawn rises over Gisborne, on the most north-easterly tip of New Zealand, she will sing to a live crowd of tens of thousands, and a TV audience of many hundreds of millions. As greetings go, this will be pretty spectacular.

"I hope it will be good. Everyone will have their own, special Millennium, but because I come from Gisborne - that's where I was born - I would like to be back there. We've always known it's the first light, on the first landfall, and it's my home town."

The concert will be part of a general musical homecoming for Kiri. Her latest record, Maori Songs, harks back to her own ethnic roots. So did the making of the record, and the singing of all those old, traditional tunes, remind her of being a little girl, and singing them all for the first time?

"It was a little bit nostalgic," she says. "I began thinking, `Oh gosh, what have I started on?' It made me think of my childhood, with my mother and my father, visiting all the different maraes and hearing these songs all the time. I never knew the words very well, but we would all hum along. A marae is a meeting-house. It looks a bit like a church, and if there's going to be a big meeting the next day, everyone sleeps on mattresses on the floor. It's a very Japanese-y idea."

Kiri was an adopted child, but, she says, "I had one of the happiest childhoods that any child could have, with loving parents and a doting father, and the world was like it has been ever since. My life has been very, very protected - a very good life."

So how does she react to the long, detailed account in a recent biography - Kiri: Her Unsung Story - which paints a very different picture of the complicated relationships between herself and her adoptive family? Kiri is adamant: "I know what I know, and if I'm not going to a psychiatrist every week saying, `My family screwed me up', I think I must be doing OK. I'm not screwed up. Everyone's got their funny little habits, but mine's not going up the line, sniffing something. [She mimes someone snorting cocaine] I have no need of that. Mine would be to play golf, or go out into the country, into the fresh air, and walk."

That is the brisk, no-nonsense side of Kiri Te Kanawa. Still hugely glamorous, she had arrived for our interview flanked by her manager and publicist (both of whom sat in on proceedings), chewing on a wad of gum. It made her look tough, like the chic gangster queen of some Lynda La Plante TV drama. But the fact remains that all is not quite as rosy in Kiri's world as she may like to make out. Recent years have seen a bitter break-up with her husband and ex-manager Des Park. That was immediately followed by an extraordinary episode involving her long-lost half-brother Jim Rawstron, son of her birth-mother Noeleen Rawstron.

The two siblings met in 1997, after an intense series of letters and telephone calls. At first all was well. Both Jim and Kiri seemed deeply moved to have found one another. But then word of their family connection reached the press. In November 1997 the New Zealand Truth newspaper ran a story headlined "Kiri Turns to Long-Lost Brother". Jim swore he had not spoken to the paper, but it was too late; Kiri refused to talk to him again. It was, perhaps, the reaction of a deeply wounded woman who was finding it hard to trust other people.

While I was researching for this profile, I read numerous interviews with Kiri. The difference in the profiles pre- and post-divorce was astonishing. A sunny character, delighting in her good fortune, had seemingly been replaced by a tough, self-protective woman who was determined not to be hurt again.

And then, of course, there are the constant rumours of retirement with which Kiri is now surrounded. A singer, like an athlete, has a limited shelf-life. In the end, no matter how willing the spirit may be, the vocal cords are bound to weaken. So is the choice of Maori material a hint that the time has come when Kiri te Kanawa is ready to go home? "I most probably will, because I do love it," she says. "Having toured the world now for 25, 30 years, I think, `It's time now to stop. You can't keep doing this.' There have been great advantages in being on tour, living in England and America, but I do feel a little bit of love and hate for it.

"You do tend to lose what youth you would have had way back then. There are a lot of people at home who've got long-established friends and I don't have that. It's very difficult to be friendly with a Gypsy and that's what singers are. We're always on the move. You go somewhere and you're straight on to the telephone to get the car to take you to the next thing. You don't plant your feet very firmly anywhere, and I find that's quite sad."

I mention a famous musician I know whose marriage broke up because his wife finally realised that, no matter how much his touring disrupted his life, he was never going to quit. "I think a lot of people would like me to quit!" she replies. "But there's still satisfaction [in singing]. The only aggravation is when things go wrong. But they only go wrong for a minute because, along with Nic [Grace - her manager] here, we can double- correct it any time. It's not as if it's out of our control if things go terribly wrong. It's in our control."

Is control, then, an important issue to her? "Yes, yes. If you let anybody else have control of your life, and you don't know them, you can imagine what a disaster that could be."

As New Zealand's biggest star (a description at which she protests, citing Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Everest, as an even bigger one) she has attracted an enormous amount of attention from her home media. So does it feel like, diving into a goldfish bowl the minute she goes home?

"Sometimes I find that it's claustrophobic and sometimes I find it's the freest place in the world, because I have my own control of myself. I'm not on a mission. I'm not working for anybody else. I don't have to do all the things that people in my sort of position find themselves having to do. I can go to New Zealand and not have to be met off an aeroplane. I can go in whenever I like, disappear into the crowd and stay there. I have a place that no one can get to. [Rawhiti - an estate near the Bay of Islands, on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island] I think that's important. I can have my privacy. There's a lot of barriers."

I mention the difference between the sunny self of her interviews from five years ago, and the much sterner figure in recent profiles. She nods: "Mmm - yes." Recently she's seemed like someone who feels battered by circumstances, but is determined not to let them beat her again. Is that fair?

She gives a short, humourless chuckle. "A bit like that. You've done well."

So how does she feel now? Can she be more relaxed? "No," says Kiri decisively. "I never let my guard down. Ever." She goes on to agree that her instinctive reaction when meeting someone is to suspect their motives, until their good intentions have been confirmed. Has she always been that way? "No. Not at all. I suppose it's just that as life goes on a little bit more, you tend to want to... well, it's not that I'm a control freak, but I certainly like to know what's happening. And I like to have control of my life. But that's all in the past. I feel good about it now and I have wonderful people around me. I have no fear - but I'm careful about who I meet now."

The point has been made. So I move on to a brighter subject: Kiri's hopes for the future, and for her professional life once she has left the stage. She brightens immediately. "I want to help young students. I really look forward to that. I'm setting up my own foundation to help students with bursaries, so

that young students from New Zealand, very talented people, can have career opportunities, which are much more difficult to get today.

"If I look at my career, I had wonderful people looking after me, like Colin Davis and Georg Solti, and in some ways they threw their hands up in the air and decided to trust me, and I didn't let them down. You don't have that today. Everybody's thinking, `What am I going to get out of it?' You get a young student with a conductor and they want to sing - and they can - but the conductor just thinks, `Oh, it's too difficult. I've got a much nicer friend who can do the part.' It would be wonderful to be able to talk to conductors and administrators, and to give kids a chance."

Kiri, of course, made one of the most sensational Covent Garden debuts of the century when, on 1 December 1971, she played the Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro. William Mann, opera critic of The Times, declared : "She looks and moves like a teenage goddess."

Andrew Porter, writing in the Financial Times, went further, saying this was a Countess "such as I have never heard before, not at Covent Garden, nor in Salzburg, nor in Vienna... a singer of great accomplishment and vivid character". Kiri later told a reporter that that was the night her career took off: "Zoom!" she said. "You couldn't see me for smoke."

"I remember that whole year so vividly," she tells me. "It was a year of wonderment. It was exciting ... wonderful to be part of that. Covent Garden was like a big daddy, watching over you and caring for you."

Less than a decade later, Kiri was the most famous living female opera singer in the world, singing at the wedding of Charles and Diana while the whole world watched. "It was as if you were on a big rope that was just pulling you," she says, of the intervening decade. "It keeps pulling you and you're almost out of control, but you think, `Well, OK, I can do this.' And you do. Somehow you get through it. And in the meantime you're trying to have a life as well. But it's exciting," she continues, her bright exterior now completely restored. "And if anyone could go back and just experience even one year of it, they'd say, `Ooh, this is sort of worth it'. And this is why I'm looking back and thinking, `there have been a lot of sacrifices, but it's all been worth it.'"

"And given the choice..." I begin. But Kiri beats me to it. "I'd do it all again. Every minute of it."

A version of this interview appears in the current issue of `Classic FM Magazine'

Deborah Ross is on holiday