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Kiri Te Kanawa: My heartfelt homecoming

The opera star is thrilled to be returning to New Zealand.

If you want to glimpse Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s softer side, you only need to ask about her dogs.
She has three of them, Pomeranian-Yorkshire terrier crosses called Nyack, Millie and Abbey, and she happily admits they are among the loves of her life.
They’re the reason the opera legend is up and out of bed at 6am every day when she’s at her UK home in the Sussex countryside.
“They don’t sleep on the bed – they have a crate in my room,” she explains.
“They all wear bells on their collars so at 6am, when they begin to move, they start tinkling and that wakes me – I don’t need an alarm clock. Then I take them for an hour- long walk on South Downs.
“They do take up a lot of my time. But they’re good dogs... very good. Although one of them got in trouble yesterday – it went under the shed and had to be dug out. That was very worrying. I thought I was going to have to push the shed over.”
At the height of her stellar career, when she was always travelling and home was just a dumping ground for her belongings, having such high-maintenance pets was out of the question.
“I’ve waited all my life to get dogs,” she says. “I love having them – why wouldn’t I? They only weigh four kilos each. I can pick them all up at once!”
Kiri, who turns 72 this week, says she is relishing this era of her life and the freedom and opportunities it is bringing.
“When I was full-on touring, there was no time for anything and now I have time for lots of things, which is fun. There are always lots of projects on the go and something to do every day. I don’t sleep much, but I enjoy my life and that’s the key, I think.”
The highlight of the past year has been a non-music project, a documentary she has been making for Maori TV that will screen on Anzac Day.
Kiri has a keen interest in war history and last year attended the Anzac centennial in Gallipoli, where she presented a memorial wreath on behalf of New Zealand.
The documentary, which took her to the scene of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest episodes of World War I, gave her a much more personal insight into the conflict.
“We had seven days there and it was an extraordinary experience,” she says. “It was humbling for me to see all those grave sites. That land has the souls of thousands. And we found the grave we were looking for.”
The documentary follows a particular soldier, Lt Henare Kohere of the Maori Pioneer Battalion, who died on the first day of the battle.
“We went to the place where we believe it happened,” says Kiri.
“He was Ngati Porou, the tribe I was born into, and was from up north, where my people came from. He was a very special person and we all got very involved in his life. I did the narration for the documentary when I was last in Auckland and, at times, it was very difficult because it was so sad.”
This month, Kiri returns home for a six-venue recital tour that will take her all around the country and also includes a homecoming concert in Gisborne, the place where she grew up and is still very fond of, although her connection to it has weakened.
“I left when I was 12, so that’s quite a long time. I’ve been back over the years, but my parents are dead and I think everyone else is gone now.”
While she will enjoy sharing some of her favourite songs, Kiri is happy these days not to have the punishing performance schedule she once managed.
“I’ve aged now so my voice has matured, I guess, but I can still reach the top notes – I can still sing,” she says. “Still, I’m not doing as much any more. I don’t need to and I don’t want to.”
A greater focus is the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation she created in 2004 to give support to up-and-coming singers.
She also offers personal mentoring and training to a group of young singers who are studying in the UK.
“Every weekend is taken up with students,” she says.
“They will come to my house and we’ll talk, have food, listen to music... We give them a life over here, which I must say I didn’t have when I was starting out in this country. I’ve done a lot with the students and they mean a lot to me. Every day, one of them will need a question answered or advice on a piece of music. But that’s the joy of what I can do, helping the next generation.
“I benefited from wonderful teachers, conductors and mentors. They were generous to me and gave me an amazing career. Hopefully, I can now do the same.”
Dame Kiri visited Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in Longueval, France, while working on an Anzac Day documentary.
She was joined by her singing protégé Kawiti Waetford (left), who was searching for the grave of his great-great-grandfather.
As well as her students, Kiri’s home is often full of friends, some of them from the music world, others not.
“At the moment, I have someone staying with me who is a friend of a friend and is training to be a marine. And I’m looking forward to having one of my best girlfriends, the singer Frederica von Stade, come to stay with me for a few days as we’re very close. But I also love being on my own, shutting the door and sitting by the fire with the dogs.”
Her children, Antonia and Thomas, are in their 30s now and busy with their own lives.
“My son is my closest friend and the love of my life. He’s a great boy. He’s gorgeous,” she says.
“My daughter is a very private person, but she tells me she loves her life. I talk to them on a regular basis. I think, because we had such a busy time when I was working, they are happy to have settled lives now.”
Even at this stage, that is not something Kiri aspires to.
“No, I don’t think I want anything to be settled,” she laughs.
“Life is about enjoyment and settling is boring in my opinion. It’s a very busy life over here. I could be out every night if I wanted to.”
Kiri sees no reason to slow down. She has always looked after herself, eating well and getting plenty of outdoor exercise, and now is reaping the benefits.
“As far as I know, I’m extremely healthy. I’ve had two knee replacements in the last year and that’s been life-changing. I couldn’t walk before and I wanted to be able to walk the dogs, plus pain is boring – you get tired of it.”
Clearly, Kiri is back in good form – while she was at her home in the Bay of Islands over Christmas, she caught six tuna from her boat. Fishing is one of her passions, along with listening to music and radio plays.
“For me, this is a period of contentment,” she says. “But I’m a private person – I don’t want to say too much about what I do in my life.”
You certainly won’t find her tweeting or over-sharing on Facebook.
“I’m not a fan of social media,” she admits. “I’ve no problem with other people doing it, but I’m not going to myself. I want things that mean something in my life, a deep and meaningful connection with people. And you’re not going to find that on the internet.”
Over the years, Kiri has developed quite a reputation as a diva or a prima donna – although they’re not words she would use to describe herself.
She will admit that she is tough, but then she’s had to be.
“To be in this profession for as long as I have, you need to be incredibly strong, healthy and focused. If being focused is being tough, then that’s me. I’ve done all the hard graft, done all the stuff you’re supposed to do. I’ve never cheated and I’ve loved every moment.”
She says it’s easy to tell the singers who have learnt a song from YouTube from those who have been trained and taught how to use their breath and bodies properly.
“If you sing an opera aria, it doesn’t make you an opera singer,” she says crisply, giving us a glimpse of the formidable Dame Kiri, whose standards for herself and others have always been exactingly high.
At 72, she has no great ambitions left and no plans to alter her life or strike out and try something new.
“I’ve done everything I want to do. I’m happy with who I am and what I’ve achieved, and I’m very happy with what I’m doing now,” she says. “I don’t need to lead anyone else’s life – I’m too busy leading mine.”

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