The most acclaimed Maori opera singer in history, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, gained legendary status almost overnight after her sensational debut as the Countess in "The Marriage of Figaro" at London's Royal Opera House in the early 1970s. From then, she moved rapidly into the front ranks of international opera to become one of the most famous sopranos in the world.
Having mesmerized audiences at the world's leading opera houses, these days Dame Kiri prefers singing at concerts and recitals.
"Concerts and recitals have a greater feeling of freedom," says Dame Kiri. "Being in an opera season has a special excitement surrounding it, but the preparation period can be lengthy. You are based in one venue for quite a time, and you're singing the music of just one composer.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa
Photo courtesy of Tim Bostock Productions
"I have found a different kind of pleasure in concerts and recitals with many different audiences, many places where opera wouldn't normally be staged, and the opportunity to bring an audience to several different composers in one night. A recital requires all your resources - no orchestra or scenery or chorus. All the responsibility is on the shoulders of you and your pianist, but I do also feel a sense of freedom."
Making her Maui debut on Saturday in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, Dame Kiri will perform with renowned New Zealand pianist and professor Terence Dennis from the University of Otago.
"I will vary the musical styles throughout the program," she explains. "So there'll be some from the classic era, Handel, Vivaldi, and then of course Mozart. Art songs from France and Germany, plus folk songs from England and a couple I particularly admire from South America, and some Puccini opera."
* Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. She will be accompanied by pianist Terence Dennis. Tickets are 75, $100, and a limited number at $125 (plus applicable fees), available at the MACC box office, 242-7469 or www.mauiarts.org.
Born into a Maori-Caucasian family in Gisborne on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island, she was adopted as a baby and renamed Kiri, which in Maori means "bell."
Reared in humble surroundings with no TV, family entertainment included sitting around a piano singing. An interest in opera was fostered by her mother.
"She started talking about my being in opera when I was 6 and she heard me sing," Dame Kiri recalls. "I went ahead with the training, but I never actually saw an opera until I was 22 in London. And then one year later I sang in my first one, and the passion began. For several decades onwards, I never looked back."
She grew up during a time when Maori culture was not widely celebrated.
"Maori wasn't spoken at home," she notes. "But it wasn't a harsh situation. My father didn't speak the language to me, but he was nevertheless very Maori, an absolute gentleman. In the 1950s, Maori culture was ignored rather than suppressed, but it never went away. Now in the 21st century, Maori culture has a strong presence in mainstream New Zealand living."
Asked how Maori culture impacted her life, she responds: "When I was very young, my mother used to say, 'The Maori half of you will be the important part.'
"It's been said that my Maori blood had helped give me the basic voice and sense of rhythm, which all Polynesian races have. In the first part of my life I was concentrating on work and a career. But in more recent years my Maori heritage has come further forward in my mind, and I love my home country more than ever."
In 1999, she was inspired to pay tribute to her culture with the album "Maori Songs."
"I'd been wanting to do it for a long time, but I seemed always to be heavily involved in other international projects, organized a long way ahead," she explains. "Then I could see that there was an opportunity. So about a year before, I started researching exactly which songs would suit me, and would also honor my Maori heritage. There was a terrific Maori chorus and a great arranger. We were all delighted with the result."
By the age of 12, Kiri and her family moved to Auckland where she trained as a mezzo-soprano. After winning various song competitions, she was offered a four-year scholarship to study at the London Opera Centre in 1965.
In 1971, at age 27, she made a sensational Covent Garden debut, playing the Countess Almaviva in "The Marriage of Figaro."
A review in The Times declared: "She looks and moves like a teenage goddess." And the Financial Times critic praised her role was "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."
By the mid-'70s, Te Kanawa was a phenomenon. Her glamorous, magnetic stage presence and effortlessly beautiful voice made her box-office gold. She sang at every major opera house in the world, and in 1981 was invited to sing Handel's "Let the Bright Seraphim" at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in London's historic St. Paul's Cathedral, before a televised audience of around 600 million people.
A year later she was anointed a came commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.
After retiring from the demanding world of opera production Dame Kiri has continued performing at concerts and recitals, including singing at the debut of Paul McCartney's "Liverpool Oratorio" in 1991, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
"My early years in London were surrounded by the music of the Beatles, so I knew Paul McCartney's musical strength," she says. "Years later we had a connection through having worked with the same record producer, and when the invitation came I was intrigued - a new oratorio? The word 'new' always intrigues me, and I wasn't from Liverpool. The premiere was an exciting occasion and certainly different from singing 'The Messiah' or any of the oratorios I'd done before."
Besides opera, over the years her repertoire has expanded to include recordings of the works of Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and even traditional British and Irish folk songs like "Danny Boy."
'When I was young and doing serious training in New Zealand, I did many engagements in concerts and night clubs, singing what was called light music, Rogers and Hammerstein, the songs from 'My Fair Lady' and other musical theater numbers," she reports. "It came quite naturally, and still does. I never saw that singing Mozart and Strauss should exclude me from Cole Porter or 'West Side Story.' "
Most recently she collaborated with acclaimed Welsh composer Karl Jenkins for the adventurous project "Kiri Sings Karl." Known for his hit "Adiemus" albums and the "Mass for Peace," Jenkins had Dame Kiri sing in Welsh, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Latin, as well as an invented language.
"Karl Jenkins is a very innovative composer," she enthuses. "I was intrigued when he asked me to work with him. The experience was valuable because his project led me into musical areas which were new to me, and I loved that. I'm very familiar with the styles in my own repertoire, so the prospect of working with a contemporary composer in a slightly different repertoire, and the experience of singing it was very rewarding. I'm always ready for something new."
These days Dame Kiri also finds joy in helping young singers develop their talents.
"There are many talented young singers out there, often with no clear image of what lies between them and a professional career," she says. "I'm not yet ready to retire, but when I do, I don't want all my own years of experience to disappear. So I've set up a foundation (the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation), which encourages and mentors young singers with master classes, financial support and a great deal of sharing the first-hand knowledge I have."
Looking back over her celebrated career, one wonders how this grande dame of opera felt being so feted and lauded.
'It has its good points, in terms of some of the comforts of life," she concludes. "But there are also responsibilities, for instance in the rigid discipline you have to keep up to present performances, which maintain the expectation people have of you. But these factors are not relevant to why I sought a career in opera - I sing because I love it."
Somehow Barry Rivers pulled it off - we get to see Martin Scorsese's new documentar, "George Harrison: Living in the Material World," before its national debut on HBO.
The Maui Film Festival screens the three-hour doc on Sunday beginning at 6 p.m. in Castle Theater. And it's for a great cause -"Bringing Back Baldwin Beach - The 'Trees Please' Project."
Knowing of the former Beatle's love for Maui and for gardening, Barry got permission from the director to screen his work and the thumbs-up from Olivia Harrison.
"I wish I could be there with you," she emailed Barry. "I am so glad to be able to make this happen and the cause couldn't be better."
* Tickets are $20. For more information, visit www.mauiarts.org.
Crowning the inaugural Maui Jazz & Blues Festival on Saturday evening, keyboard legend Les McCann announced, "Maui, I have two words for you. Maui is paradise," before launching into his funk-fueled set.
That praise in a way applied to the ensembles of Maui musicians who backed the visiting heavyweights, because the packed fest at the Grand Wailea showed the world that our guys can shine with the best.
Observing the likes of Shiro Mori on guitar, Bob Harrison on bass and Paul Marchetti on drums help drive McCann's irresistible grooves, visiting guitar great Brian Stoltz enthused, "They're phenomenal."
So there was SLAM guitarist Alan Villaren unleashing a smoking solo during Tom Scott's take on the Average White Band's "Pick Up The Pieces;" keyboardist Gene Argel propelling Brother Noland far beyond familiar territory; and keyboardist Sal Godinez drawing a smile from Delfeayo Marsalis for his creative embellishments during Duke Ellington's classic "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."
From the opening "Wipeout" performed by the 90-member Kalama Intermediate School Ukulele Jazz Cats to the closing crowd favorite McCann hit "Compared To What," the festival abounded in highlights.
New Orleans funk guitar king Brian Stoltz dazzled playing solo dobro on an extraordinary Indo-blues fusion work that veered from the Delta to the Ganges, while former Kool and The Gang singer Skip Martin, backed by members of SLAM, packed the front of the stage with dancers for Kool hits like "Get Down On It."
Aided by Maui musicians saxophonist David Choy, drummer Mike Kennedy and Gene Argel on keys, Brother Noland delivered an extraordinary set that ranged from Stevie Wonder's "Have a Talk With God" to a searing take on the '50s ballad "You Don't Know Me."
Afterwards, Gene reported right before showtime he had asked Noland about what they would play, and Noland responded that he hadn't decided yet. "That's the jazz spirit," said Gene.
And jazz lovers were truly treated with the amazing playing of trombone great Delfeayo Marsalis, from the legendary Marsalis family of New Orleans. With just a three-song set (because of timing), he demonstrated how a master plays his instrument - from an absolutely mesmerizing version of "What a Wonderful World" to the aforementioned swing of "It Don't Mean a Thing."
"It was beautiful; it's what jazz should be," Paul Marchetti marveled later. "It was the highlight."