Profile: Tonight she sings for Britain: Kiri Te Kanawa, most beloved soprano

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Now and again the great, sentimental British public takes a serious musician to its heart. It might be Sir Malcolm Sargent - better loved by the masses who didn't know him personally than those who did - or it might be the truly lovable Kathleen Ferrier, public affection for her hugely increased by her tragic end. Should Nigel Kennedy transmute from bumptious brat to crusty codger (and that's not unknown), he might even get there.

This evening, at the last night of the Proms, for so long Sir Malcolm's own, we shall have the most beloved Dame Kiri. There is nothing like a dame. Four of them compete for the public's heartstrings. Dame Gwyneth Jones is admired more in Germany than here, and Dame Janet Baker's talent is too esoterically pure for the masses. Dame Joan Sutherland reached national stardom, and even gained royal approval.

But she has been surpassed in mass popularity by another, younger antipodean singer. At 48, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa stands at a pinnacle. Not quite a pinnacle of educated esteem: it has been significant that her reputation has always been equivocal among the operatic cognoscenti, not to say among the class whom Jonathan Miller immortally dubbed 'disgusting old opera queens'.

Those quibblers apart, Dame Kiri wows them. She wows Bernard Levin, whose Kiriolotrous columns stay barely this side of sanity. She wows the Royal Family; inauspicious as the occasion now seems, her singing of Handel's 'Let the Bright Seraphim' at the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1981 was seen by 600 million, enormously increasing her fame. She wows the public, here and in the United States, where she is nationally famous for her Rolex ad.

She charms the great public in a repertory which ranges from Simon Boccanegra to West Side Story, Arabella to My Fair Lady, not to say that lugubrious number that was the television anthem of the Rugby World Cup last year. Whatever crabbed curmudgeons may sometimes write about her, she is a star.

The star was born in New Zealand in 1944, to parents she never knew. Thomas and Nell Te Kanawa - Maori and Irish by extraction respectively - wanted to adopt a boy, but the adoption society only had a girl and they took her, on their second visit. Apart from her adoptive name, Dame Kiri has Maori blood herself, about a quarter, she reckons.

Nell had always wanted a musical child, which her two natural children were not, and, as little Kiri grew up in the bluntly named Poverty Bay, she was encouraged from her earliest years to sing. When she was 12 the family moved to Auckland so that she could study music seriously, at St Mary's College and with Sister Mary Leo.

Te Kanawa herself was unambitious then - and, by her account, is now: 'I don't ask questions. If somebody says, 'This is good for you', then I'll do it. And I knew I wasn't cut out for shorthand typing, which seemed the only alternative.'

But she was plucky. She paid her way, singing in Auckland drinking clubs, the sort of place where every man sat with his own bottle of whisky in front of him. Not surprisingly, the owner of this joint was a little apprehensive as to how his ruffianly punters would react when the young girl went on at the end of an evening's mixed entertainment to sing 'Ave Maria'. He needn't have worried: there was not a dry eye in the club.

It was not only among the lads in the drinking club that she was winning friends and praise, along with a couple of prizes and a New Zealand Arts Council grant. Fortified by these, she and her mother took the boat to London in 1966, where Te Kanawa studied at the London Opera Centre. She was still a mezzo-soprano: it is not uncommon for singers to move up (occasionally down) in register as they mature, and the fact that she learnt to sing in the mezzo's darker register helped give her voice its thick creamy quality. The late Sixties were formative in other ways. She met three people crucial to her life: her singing teacher, Vera Rozsa, her agent, Basil Horsfield, and Desmond Park, an Australian mining engineer. She met Desmond on a blind date in 1967 and they married six weeks later.

They never had children of their own - Te Kanawa once miscarried during a performance of Don Giovanni - but adopted two. Antonia is named, quaintly enough, after Lady Antonia Fraser, whom Te Kanawa had met and admired; and Thomas is called after her father. She knows her life is not ideal for motherhood, living in an endless series of hotel rooms. But, she says, 'I'm always pulled homewards by the children. Children spell sanity. They're far more important than my voice.'

All the same, it is the voice that rules her life. Those who first heard her in London were underwhelmed, not by the voice itself so much as what schoolteachers call attitude: 'lacks concentration', 'too nonchalant'. But her quality was nevertheless recognised by the Royal Opera (which by no means has a flawless reputation for spotting young British or English-speaking talent). She joined the company, and in 1971 made her sensational debut as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro.

She was still in her late twenties, a child as opera singers go, but success followed success. She was not too proud to make her Metropolitan Opera House debut in New York at a few hours' notice, as Desdemona in Otello, and it was another triumph. She was not too proud, either, to continue singing a wide range of parts, some of them comprimario roles, as opera-folk say: not bit parts, but not leads either. As well as Mozart's Countess, Elvira and Fiordiligi, in her first Covent Garden decade she sang her Micaelas in Carmen and Flower Maidens in Parsifal, good grist to the lyric soprano mill.

After the Met, she began to sing at La Scala, the Paris Opera, at Salzburg; all of which meant a punishing schedule. Dame Kiri does not pretend to enjoy the jet-set life - or, for that matter, the company of most of her colleagues: 'Opera singers may have interesting voices but I don't think they are interesting. In fact I think they're quite boring.'

This down-to-earth Kiri bluffness is the most likeable thing about her. She is humorous in an unsophisticated way. When England were playing Australia at Lord's years ago, a journalist found himself sitting next to her at Glyndebourne. By way of making conversation he asked her if she took sides in the Test.

'England of course] My husband's


And she is - some might say was - also in many ways genuinely unpretentious. For years the Parks had a house on a private estate in Surrey, next to a golf course. Both Des and Kiri are keen golfers, and their best friends were a dentist and his wife from the golf club. Since then they have moved on. She now has flats in London and New York, and it may be that she is no longer quite so free from self-importance.

An admirer might say that the most admirable thing about Te Kanawa is the way she has handled her career, restricting herself to a certain number of roles and singing about 50 performances a year. As she is one of the premier league who can charge pounds 10,000 an evening, quite apart from recording fees, this is a bearable financial sacrifice, but there are other singers who have been greedy, and sung themselves out young.

There is a darker side also. Te Kanawa's jolly nice, girl-next-door image always looked too good to be true, and so Hei-Kyung Hong discovered. The two were to have sung together in Cosi fan tutte at the Met in March 1988, but Te Kanawa decided that the young Korean was not yet ready to take the stage alongside her. The management duly removed Miss Hong. The young singer was devastated - 'I don't understand. She's at the top. She sings beautifully. Why did she do this to me?' - and at a subsequent performance Dame Kiri was booed for the first time in her life.

She has never been booed in London, but for all the star-struck homage of the Prince of Wales and Bernard Levin, her reputation is mixed. Nobody can deny that she sings beautifully. The voice is lovely, luscious, lustrous. But being a great opera singer means more than having a beautiful voice, it means doing something with it, and Dame Kiri's critics wonder if she does enough.

Her repertory has not only been limited by her own prudence. She has never been a 'quick learn', as they say in Hollywood. Quite often she has approached the first night in a new part by no means secure in her command of the role, and she spends a good deal of her time on stage with her eyes glued to the prompt box rather than the conductor. German critics have been less indulgent than their British colleagues, regularly pointing out that she sings the subtle librettos of Strauss's operas with little apparent idea of what the words mean.

In some of the parts she has regularly sung - Mozart's Countess, Strauss's Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, both mature, complex women - she lacks the histrionic depth of a Baker, a Barstow or a Lott. 'Another of Dame Kiri's I-speak- your-weight performances,' murmured one disgusting but learned opera queen. A senior critic, who would rather not be named, says, 'I'm told she's a wonderful person to go shopping with.'

This criticism has little effect on the singer herself. There are plaudits enough on the other side: not only the fame and the money, but the DBE in 1982, before she was 40, an Oxford honorary doctorate, not to say an honorary fellowship of Somerville. At the same time she barely pretends to take a particularly keen interest in her work - 'I'd rather sit at home and knit' - and she explains candidly why she has never sung the big Wagner parts: 'The operas are sometimes too long and I lose interest a bit.'

Still, the millions of her fans show no sign of losing interest in Dame Kiri. A funny kind of star, maybe, but a star, a public heroine, for all that.