Kiri Te Kanawa debuts on Trove Thursday to celebrate Mozart’s 265th birthday with both Don Giovanni alongside Margaret Price, Roger Soyer, José van Dam, Stuart Burrows, Jane Berbié and Kurt Moll and Le Nozze di Figaro co-starring Lucia Popp, Frederica von Stade, Hermann Prey and Ingvar Wixell, conducted by Georg Solti and Wolfgang Sawallisch respectively.

Trove Thursday began in September 2015 with a “rule” not to repeat any titles. However, as we move into 2021, occasionally I’ll be ignoring that–beginning today with Te Kanawa in these two Mozart-da Ponte masterpieces.

Besides Mozart’s birthday on the 27th, late January always reminds me of my initial Metropolitan Opera visit. One of the three performances I attended during my adult first trip to NYC was the premiere of Colin Graham’s new production of Così fan tutte featuring Te Kanawa as Fiordiligi in her first appearance with the company after a six-year absence. During the 70s, she, particularly singing Mozart, had become one of my favorite singers. I recorded the Met broadcasts of Giovanni and Nozze and also purchased reel-to-reel tapes of today’s Paris Don Giovanni and a San Francisco Opera Pamina in English.

Well before I listened to the broadcast of her “star is born” last-minute 1974 Met debut as Desdemona, I first heard her voice on Colin Davis’s LP of the Vesperae solennes de confessore (her first major recording?), a Mozart work I hadn’t known previously. The sublime “Laudate dominum” quickly became a favorite I played over and over again.

While I’d come back to the Met for Der Rosenkavalier and Die Fledermaus, it was surprisingly easy to hear Te Kanawa while I was still living in the Midwest. Arabella with Barbara Daniels and Wixell at Chicago Lyric in 1984 was followed the next year by my only visit to the Ravinia Festival to catch the New Zealand diva with the Chicago Symphony in Mozart, Handel and the Vier Letzte Lieder by Richard Strauss. She even came to my native Ohio in 1987 for a Columbus recital!

I always regretted that Te Kanawa never sang Donna Elvira in the US after her Met performances in 1975 (just weeks prior to the Paris production posted today). But I was able to finally catch her Countess when in 1991 she returned to Nozze at the Met for the first time in 15 years. If Mirella Freni didn’t show up for her announced Susannas, Helen Donath in town for her much-belated house debut as Marzelline filled in superbly next to Samuel Ramey, Jorma Hynninen and the inevitable von Stade.

New productions of Simon Boccanegra and Capriccio followed but my favorite local post-Nozze Te Kanawa memories were gala appearances in Mozart. We finally got bits of Elvira at the 1996 Levine 25th with “Mi tradi” followed by a stellar sextet featuring an unfortunately coiffed Renée Fleming, Jerry Hadley, Hei-Kyung Hong and Julien Robbins. It memorably featured Dame Kiri flashing her gam while groping a faux-shocked Bryn Terfel!

As I skipped the La Fille du Régiment revivals in which she was the Duchess of Krakentorp, the last time I heard Te Kanawa was at the Volpe farewell: after a wistful Marietta’s Lied, she joined von Stade in a sweetly campy Così duet 29 years after the Nozze (Bavarian State Opera debuts for them both!) posted today.

Te Kanawa gets a lot of abuse these days for some bad repertoire choices both on stage and on recordings along with more than a few lazy performances along the way yet I retain a great fondness for her (but not for Downton Abbey). I was pleased to see that in November Zachary Woolfe had chosen her “Dove sono” for the New York Times “5 Minutes that will make you love Sopranos”!

I’m so grateful that my colleague Callum John Blackmore agreed to share with Trove Thursday his up-close-and-personal experiences with Dame Kiri:

I grew up in New Zealand. For me, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa was opera. Throughout my childhood, she stood as proof that opera was relevant in New Zealand, that it was a part of our cultural heritage – an international artform that we could lay as much claim to as any European country.

She was lionized throughout the nation – even by those with no interest in opera. She was a national treasure, a paragon of Kiwi excellence. She seemed to encapsulate a rugged New Zealand individualism (colloquially known as our “number-eight-wire mentality”) – the idea that anyone from anywhere can do anything with dash of ingenuity and a lot of hard work.

Dame Kiri was a mythical figure. Her reputation was shrouded by larger-than-life anecdotes from her meteoric rise to stardom: that she learned to sing from a rather punctilious nun who punished her harshly if she made a mistake; that she endured years of crushing poverty when she moved to London to study; that she barely passed her conservatory examinations before getting her big break at Covent Garden; that she continued to live an ascetic and reclusive lifestyle (despite her glamorous onstage manner), devoting every hour of her life to practicing; that she was an unforgiving perfectionist (on herself and on others), with a special gift for making unprepared co-stars cry; and, most outlandishly, that she had long refused to perform again in New Zealand until the local government agreed to build a new opera house in Auckland.

Of course, most of these anecdotes were nothing more than idle gossip (in fact, Dame Kiri had helped to fundraise for Auckland theater, and it now bears her name.) Nevertheless, she possessed a certain mystique – more legend than human being.

When I was in my last year of high school, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. I was selected to perform as part of the backing choir for what was billed as one of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s final performances. The recital was to take place in a 12,000-seat seaside arena on Auckland’s harbor and was to be televised to the entire nation. I had never been more excited in my life.

The choir rehearsed separately for the most part. During the early rehearsals we were given stark warnings about how to behave in front of the great diva (“don’t speak to Dame Kiri unless she speaks to you first”; “if you are late to rehearsal, she will fire you on the spot in front everyone”). It was not until one of the final dress rehearsals that I finally saw Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in the flesh.

Frankly, I thought she was ridiculous.

She was every stereotype of an ageing diva. It was as if she had walked in off the set of Sunset Boulevard. She was cold, haughty, testy and endlessly demanding. She condescendingly referred to everyone – chorus and orchestra – as “kiddies.” She would sharply reproach anyone – from the maestro to her co-stars – for any perceived error.

In one instance, she pointed dramatically out into the darkened arena (again looking every bit like Norma Desmond) and screamed down the microphone: “Who is that cameraman? Didn’t someone tell him that I said ‘no closeups’? If he’s going to zoom in that close, I want him gone!”

I left the whole experience feeling a little jaded. I had hoped the concert would be a magical musical experience. In reality, Dame Kiri – the legendary diva who I had been taught to revere – half-sang a few Rodgers and Hammerstein show tunes and a couple of Puccini arias down a microphone into a cold, echoey arena.

I would sing for her only once again. In 2014, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa celebrated her 70th birthday. The festivities included an intimate concert in her honor, with videos from international colleagues and live performances from various young singers (from memory, the performance culminated in a rousing rendition of “There is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific).

I was due to perform the Papageno/Papagena duet from Die Zauberflöte with a young soprano I knew from university. Right before I was due to sing, Dame Kiri made an exuberant speech, reflecting on the highlights of her career. A large portion of the speech was, of course, devoted to Mozart. Reminiscing on her legendary break-out performance as the Countess at the Royal Opera House, she proclaimed: “One must sing Mozart perfectly, because everything he wrote was perfection.”

Our Papageno/a performance was a dog’s breakfast. I somehow miscounted the number of “pa’s” that I had to sing, and ended up finishing about half a bar earlier than the soprano.

As I skulked sheepishly off the stage, I caught Dame Kiri’s eye. My blood ran cold. She gave me a fearsome scowl, her eyes gleaming like daggers, as if to say “how dare you sing Mozart like that in front of me!” That look remains etched in my mind to this day. I get chills just thinking about it.

For many years, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to any of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s recordings. Every time I heard her voice, I thought of the severe figure – equal parts outrageous and terrifying – who I had encountered as a student in Auckland. I struggled to reconcile the harsh intensity of the real Dame Kiri with that gorgeous voice that I had grown up loving.

One day, I was in the North of England, traveling by train from Leeds to Huddersfield. It was a cold, snowy day, and the journey was taking longer than usual. I was idly shuffling through the music in my iTunes library.

I settled on an unnamed track which I didn’t remember downloading. I immediately recognized it as the “Mondscheinmusik” from the final scene of Capriccio. I recoiled in horror when the Countess started singing and I realized it was the Dame Kiri Te Kanawa recording. But, against my better judgement, I let it play.

It was one of the best decisions of my life.

Immediately, I was enraptured. Her voice came over me like a wave of sweet ambrosia – equal parts warm and clear, bright and rich, sweeping and intimate, sweet and piercing. I had never heard anything so perfect.

It was as if my spirit had come alive, bewitched by the sound of this angelic voice. I came to completely loose myself in its beauties – to the extent that I felt indivisible from it, as if the voice were emanating from the deepest chasms of my soul.

When I finally reached the scene’s apex – “you wanted to make a pact with love/now you are enflamed yourself and cannot be saved” – it was as if I, too, was enflamed. I was in love, and I, too, could not be saved.

As the scene drew to a close and I hurtled back to reality, I noticed that we were pulling into Manchester. I had completely missed my stop. But it was worth it. I had experienced a musical revelation, the likes of which I had never known before.

From that day forward, I was obsessed with Dame Kiri’s voice. I came to realize that the implacable, diva-ish manner which I found so jarring in my brief interactions with her was something that she had well and truly earned.

I also suspect that it was essential to her musical success – for how can you sing with so much dignity, so much beauty, and such a profound sense of musical care without steadfastly believing in yourself and without holding yourself and others to the highest possible standards?

The “diva” trope is, to some extent, a necessary byproduct of musical excellence. It is the mark of someone who so staunchly refuses to be second-rate, whose voice stands in defiance of all that is average and mundane, who sings to spite the monotony of everyday life.

For only a diva could render the kind of divine musical encounter that I had on that train. It takes a diva to exalt the soul and to numb the senses, to inject the music into every fiber of your being.

Falling in love with Kiri Te Kanawa again opened me up to a whole new world of musical experiences, but it also gave me new insights into the kind of personality it takes to bring these musical experiences to life.

Thank you, Callum! Look for more Te Kanawa on Trove Thursday later in 2021!

Mozart: Don Giovanni

Paris Opéra
12 March 1975

Donna Anna – Margaret Price
Donna Elvira – Kiri Te Kanawa
Zerlina – Jane Berbié
Don Ottavio – Stuart Burrows
Don Giovanni – Roger Soyer
Leporello – José Van Dam
Masetto – Richard Van Allen
Commendatore – Kurt Moll

Conductor – Georg Solti

Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro

Bavarian State Opera
18 September 1977
In-house recording

Countess — Kiri Te Kanawa
Susanna — Lucia Popp
Cherubino — Frederica Von Stade
Marcellina — Gudrun Wewezow [one of my favorite singer names!]
Barbarina — Marianne Seibel
Figaro — Hermann Prey
Count — Ingvar Wixell
Don Bartolo — Zoltan Kelemen
Don Basilio — David Thaw
Don Curzio — Friedrich Lenz
Antonio — Gerhard Auer

Conductor – Wolfgang Sawallisch

Both Mozart operas can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 files will appear in your download directory.

Another Don Giovanni–with Cheryl Studer, Gundula Janowitz, Krisztina Laki, Gösta Winbergh, Prey and Malcolm King–can be found here.

Listen to Janowitz, Freni, von Stade, Berbié, van Dam, Gabriel Bacquier and Moll in a Solti-led Nozze here.

In addition, more than 400 other podcast tracks are always available from Apple Podcasts for free, or via any RSS reader.

The archive which lists all Trove Thursday offerings in alphabetical order by composer was up-to-dated in late December.