Famed soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who will appear in a recital program consisting mostly of art songs at the Madison Civic Center on Thursday, Oct. 14, is enthusiastic about her return to Madison, where she last performed in 1988, and about the release of her latest CD, Maori Songs. "These songs were the background to my childhood in New Zealand," she notes. Te Kanawa's father was Maori, a Polynesian people who came to Aoteoroa (New Zealand) over 1,000 years ago as part of perilous migrations that populated a vast triangle of South Pacific islands from Tahiti to Hawaii to New Zealand. "Music and singing have a special place in the Maori tradition. The songs I have chosen cover a wide range of human emotions: themes of love, grief, death, heartbreak, happiness and the natural world."
Listening to an advance copy of the CD, it was at first a bit odd to hear a cultivated operatic voice in music that to American ears echoes styles familiar to us from the Hawaiian corner of the Polynesian triangle. But the language is Maori, and there is much of the more traditional Maori chant style as well, telling stories about the ancient traditions, which among other things give pride of place to soprano voices.
Te Kanawa's voice is an asset of unusual clarity and purity. Although she had her first singing lessons with Dame Sister Mary Leo at the London School in England and has worked with many coaches and conductors, among them the late Sir George Solti, "my one and only teacher since 1968 or 1969 has been Vera Rosza." About other singers she admired earlier in her highly successful career, Te Kanawa mentions "Leontyne Price, Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas, Carlo Bergonzi, Alfredo Krause, Giuseppe Taddei and others." She's also enthusiastic about two of the currently hottest operatic stars, Renée Fleming and Bryn Terfel.
At this stage in her career, Te Kanawa is very down to earth about preserving her delicate instrument: "Well, I don't do anything silly. I'm careful, take breaks, sing only what suits me, and know my limits. If I'm ill, I cancel." The concerts on this 10-city American tour are no closer than four days apart. Te Kanawa's Madison program includes only one opera aria (by Weber), consisting otherwise of songs by Duparc, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, Rachmaninov, and Rostivino. No Maori songs are mentioned, but it would not be surprising to hear some as encores.
Isthmus, October, 1999
Copyright 1999 Jess Anderson