Sunday Times | Time and Place : Dame Kiri Te Kanawa
I went to New York to understudy Desdemona at the Met. I spent all my time rehearsing the role, then one day I got the call to sing — at three hours’ notice
Roz Lewis Published: 21 June 2015
The New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, 71, recalls her big break, living on the Upper West Side in the early 1970s (Karwai Tang/Getty)
In January 1974, I went to New York, where I was booked to understudy the role of Desdemona in Verdi’s masterpiece Otello at the Metropolitan Opera. I’d already been singing at the Royal Opera House, in Covent Garden, where I was becoming known as a Mozart soprano.
At the time, I was living in Surrey with my husband. I was used to being away from home for work, but as this was my first time in New York, the New Zealand commissioner decided I should stay with a fellow countryperson. So I shared a nice apartment on 79th Street, on the Upper West Side, with a girl called Rozanne. The block had a friendly doorman, and the flat was large and comfortably furnished, with spectacular views of the New York skyline. Rozanne and I got on well and would cook together in the evening.
The weather was cold that winter; there was a great deal of snow. To protect my voice, I wore a scarf and hat, and didn’t go out that often. Most of my time was spent rehearsing, learning or resting. In the little time off I had, I did some exploring and discovered a wonderful delicatessen called Zabar’s close by. I also saw Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano at Carnegie Hall. In those days, there were no mobile phones, and it was difficult to call home with the time difference.
After a couple of weeks of learning and rehearsing my role, one morning the phone rang in the apartment. Jokingly, I told Rozanne to pretend I was out shopping if it was the Met ringing for me. She did, but it actually was them. It transpired that the Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas had fallen ill. Would I rush to the theatre and sing in the matinee performance — in three hours’ time?
I quickly packed some essentials, ran down to the street and hailed a taxi. But I hit a snag: I had hailed one of the few cab drivers in NYC who didn’t know where the Met was! I directed him through the snowy streets until we finally arrived at the opera house. Everyone there seemed to be in a panic, too. I had something to eat as they ran around backstage, helping to get me ready.
In what seemed like no time at all, it was curtain up. I then had to wait 20 long minutes before making my entrance. Eventually, it was my cue, and I took as steadying a breath as I could manage before going on stage for a big love duet with my Otello, the hugely experienced Jon Vickers.
The performance went perfectly, and at the end the place erupted. There was curtain call after curtain call, with flowers showering from the highest balconies in the auditorium. The rapturous applause felt like it would never end. In fact, that evening’s performance had to be delayed because the audience didn’t leave as quickly as usual.
I went back to the apartment that evening on Cloud 25. It was a performance I will never forget — and it established me at the Met and in America, as it was broadcast nationally on the radio. The reviews in the papers the next day were amazing.
I spent the next few weeks rehearsing, keeping healthy and attending the theatre as understudy until I sang the role again a month later. This time my family were there to see me perform.
I’ve been back to the city on many occasions, and spent four years living on Long Island. I still go there to teach and visit friends. Rozanne and I kept in touch for a while, but then our lives moved on. When I look back, it was a fantastic opportunity. Verdi’s music is a big challenge for any singer, and I was not quite 30. I think everyone is fearless when they are young. New York and that time will always hold a special place in my heart.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is patron of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition; catch the final tonight on BBC4 or Radio 3. She is the founder of the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation, which helps young singers.
Cause it’s always nice to know that you’re not alone, and that it happens to the best of us.
I have to start out the list with Glenn Gould *fans self with hands* who considered audiences evil (literally) : “I detest audiences. I think they are a force of evil.” But hey, he left extensive recordings so I won’t complain.
Vladimir Horowitz *dreamy sigh*, famous pianist known for his ability to enthrall audiences, retired from performing publicly several times due to severe stage fright.
Then there’s the unforgettable tenor Andrea Bocelli. In an interview with Tom Bryan, he discloses that stage fright never goes away: “It always happens and it’s a big problem. Everything that’s simple suddenly becomes unbelievably complicated. It’s almost a disease. (…) It has nothing to do with how many times you’ve been on stage. It’s something that accompanies you for all your life.
Pablo Casals, cellist, told his interviewer Josep Maria Corredor in Conversations with Casals: “Nerves and stage fright before playing have never left me through-out the whole of my career. Can you realize that at each of the thousands of concerts I played at, I felt as bad as I did on that first occasion?”
Adolf Henselt, also a pianist, considered by many to be on the same level as Lizst, was “terrified of the public”. Schonberg writes in his book Great Pianists: “When playing with an orchestra, (Henselt) would hide in the wings until the opening tutti was over, rush out and literally pounce on the piano. On one occasion he forgot to put aside the cigar he was nervously chomping - this was in Russia - and playing the concerto cigar in mouth, smoking away, much to the amusement of the Czar. The mere thought of giving a concert made him physically ill.” (Honestly, the cigar part makes me giggle)
Renee Fleming *heart eyes emoji*, American soprano, admits frankly to have dealt with stage fright. In an interview with Imogen Tilden she says: “I have had a very difficult time with stage fright; it undermines your wellbeing and peace of mind, and it can also threaten your livelihood.”
There are so many more who belong on this list: Argerich (who once cut her finger in order to cancel a performance), Bolet, Rubinstein, CHOPIN… Just know that if they - the greats - went on stage, performed so spectacularly, so unforgettably, despite their fears… you can too.
GOING TO THE OPERA By Sasha Slater Harper’s Bazaar UK, August 2015
It’s 10 days before Sophie Hunter is due to give birth but she arrives in a private club in SoHo looking fresh, elegant and relaxed. The theatre director exudes poise and confidence, which is lucky since she is now a red carpet fixture on the arm of Benedict Cumberbatch who she wed in February. At awards ceremonies and premieres she favours Erdem but she married in a 12th-century church on the Isle of Wight in an exquisite grey cloud of Valentino lace.
The marriage was a classy affair, but then Hunter is an extremely classy woman. A product of St. Paul Girls’ School and Oxford University, she also studied drama at the Jacques Lecoq theatre school in Paris which gives her patrician cool on international edge. It was there, she says, that she first realized she wanted to direct rather than act. ‘To direct, you have to lead and that’s the challenge,’ she says. ‘You’re leading a gang, a family. In Paris, the directing bug got me and the minute I realised I had the ability to inspire other people, I could never let it go.’
Her next project is a Benjamin Britten cantata about Phaedra at this year’s Beckett Festival in Enniskillen. The doomed second wife of Theseus, which will be sung by the talented mezzo-soprano Ruby Philogene. The piece may be only 16 minutes long but Hunter is intent on shocking and delighting the audience. For her, it is not enough for a character to as she puts it, ‘park-and bark’. 'I find opera quite staid! I think we should be approaching librettos and directing opera in the same way as we approach theatre. I don’t want people to just shut their eyes and listen to music.’ As a result she spends as much time and thought on the costume, the set and the way the production will evolve as she does on the music itself. In her mind, Racine connects to Beckett who links to Britten. The cantata will be performed in an equestrian centre in a ruined castle on an island, which echoes the ruin of the house of Minos, Phaedra’s father, and a connection to horses with Hippolytus (her stepson, with whom she is infatuated) through his mother, the Amazon queen Hippolyta.
In Hunter’s world, literature and music, art, lighting, film and opera all come together in a glorious creative swirl. And now she’s introducing a tiny baby into this imaginative maelstrom. ‘Yes, with a whole team.’ she says smiling. 'I’ve been working with a company in New York called the Phantom Limb and saw them bring up a child in rehearsals, and it’s just the most wonderful place. You’re surrounded by people, amazing music, art, images, attention. And the child of actors and directors has to be peripatetic– with some bases, I hope.’
But there is one person she’s not aiming to collaborate with professionally anytime soon: her husband. ‘I’ve never directed Benedict, though we did work together as actors. But I think we’ll just keep with the marriage for now. And the family.’
‘Phaedra’ is at Necarne Equestrian Centre on 31 July and 1 August as part of the 4th Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival. Book here
Shoutout to opera fans who are too poor to see shows, or buy music, or visit Italy and Europe or the Met, to those who love opera even though they can only hear it on the radio or after checking it out from the library. Here’s to the opera lovers who don’t get to go to conservatories, who can’t get voice lessons or join a high quality choir- you are wonderful, and still matter to the whole opera community. Opera love forever!