Kiri Te Kanawa Retires

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I learn that Kiri Te Kanawa is to retire from the operatic stage, something I thought she had done some years ago, actually. I didn’t think she had ever got started! Good voice but no idea about musicianship. She’s known as the “can opener” in New Zealand … don’t ask me why, a friend of mine started it.

Oh dear. I suppose there’s a convention that if one doesn’t have anything nice to say, one keeps quiet, but (and I saw her on numerous occasions in the 1980s in both the theatre and in the concert hall) she was not really an opera singer at all.

She had an undeniably beautiful voice (although she was really more of a jacked-up mezzo than a soprano, as her early recordings demonstrate) but I can think of few singers who were less dramatic or engaged, or who came on stage showing less evidence that they actually knew their part (I remember a concert at the Royal Festival Hall in which she unwisely decided to sing Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder from memory, came unstuck, and André Previn as conductor desperately trying to help her out while shooting her the sort of looks that he normally reserved for Eric Morecambe).

Opera is not just, or even principally, about beautiful voices; it’s about guts, drama, commitment. During her time at Covent Garden you could slum it in St Martin’s Lane and see singing actors of the calibre of Janice Cairns and Josephine Barstow, who may not have had Kiri Te Kanawa’s vocal gifts but knew about performing on the operatic stage.

I’m afraid whatever else Kiri Te Kanawa may have been, in the performances I saw she was never the real thing on stage.

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