Breaking: Kiri quits

Breaking: Kiri quits


norman lebrecht

March 06, 2014

Dame Kiri te Kanawa, 70 today, has announced that her cameo role in Covent Garden’s Daughter of the Regiment is to be her last stage appearance. The production closes next week.

The Dame, reared from raw at the Royal Opera, achieved her finest moment at the wedding of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana.

kiri te kanawa wedding

She has been an outstanding stage artist for almost half a century. Closely identified on record with Sir Georg Solti, her best-selling classical record (wedding apart) was probably the West Side Story she recorded with Leonard Bernstein and Jose Carreras on DG.



  • Paddy Briggs says:

    Thought that Lenny B West Side Story album was truly dreadful. Wrong type of voices for the Musical Theatre ( as opposed to Opera)

  • Such a great career. As an expatriate Kiwi, I recall her rise to stardom with pride and clarity.

  • Derek Castle says:

    Mm….the ‘people’s princess’. As far as I know, princes/princesses are born into the Royal Family, e.g. Princess Anne. Diana married the Prince of Wales, and thus became (Lady) Diana, Princess of Wales. The Queen can dish out titles as much as she wants, but I don’t think she ever gave Diana the right to call herself ‘Princess Diana’ – in contrast to her hubby, the Duke of Edinburgh, to whom she gave the title ‘Prince Philip’ around 1960. I’ve always been amused by the unusually named ‘Princess Michael of Kent’. It’s a man’s world.

    As far as Dame Kiri is concerned, I shall not remember her for the disastrous, overblown Bernstein ego-trip ‘West Side Story’ or for wearing a funny hat at Diana’s wedding, but for her wonderful Mozart and Strauss.

    • Princess Michael of Kent is Prince Michael’s wife. It is exactly like a wife being referred to as Mrs Surname.

      Admittedly, in the days of women’s liberation, this practise may appear somewhat archaic, but the idea is set out in the Marriage service when husband and wife become “one flesh”. She does after all take his surname.

      I have no problem in being referred to as Mrs Debenham, however as he usually takes the title “Dr” as he has a PhD, we are normally referred to as Dr and Mrs Joanna Debenham.

      I don’t think it is still a man’s world. More a case of realising where the title and terms come from.

      Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was given that title as the phrase ‘Dowager King’ would have been thought of as inappropriate.

      I’ve no doubt that Dame Kiri will continue to have a Concert Career. Performing in Opera demands more than just the ability to sing. A performer has to maintain the stamina to cavort around the stage too.

      Other singers have made very similar decisions when they have felt that the demands are just a bit too much as well.

      • Derek Castle says:

        Dear Joanna, I think we met on the never-ending JE thread. Ah, those were the days! I do actually know why Princess Michael of Kent is so called (all attempts at humour should really be avoided on SD), but thanks for explaining for all our foreign friends. It may interest readers to know that in Germany – in correspondence, anyway – married couples are addressed individually, e.g. Frau Maria Schmidt, Herr Dr. Hans Schmidt (and I should know; I’ve written enough letters – and envelopes in my lifetime.) Also, the title ‘Fräulein’ seems to have had its day. ‘Frau’ is an umbrella title for any woman over, say, 18; very handy, especially if, in English, we could avoid the execrable ‘Ms’.

        • Our paths did cross there Derek.

          I found it rather funny that only a few weeks before my wedding that people insisted on referring to me as “Frau”. However, given “Fraulein” is neuter, it was preferable to be thought of as a “she” rather than an “it”.

          • Derek Castle says:

            Yes, one of the idiosyncrasies of the German language, I’m afraid. Everyone/thing ending in the diminutive ‘-lein’ or ‘-chen’ is treated grammatically as neuter. Thus, das Mädchen, das Fräulein, das Männlein, das Häuschen. Didn’t Mark Twain have fun with German grammar years ago? (My apologies. Nothing to do with Dame Kiri, of course.)

          • Sometimes these asides are worth exploring as they are interesting!

      • Alexander says:

        I have to admit that I am a bit puzzled about your being referred to as Dr and Mrs Joanna Debenham. That would suggest to me that your husband’s name is Joanna. It has always been my understanding that Dr John Smith and his wife are referred to jointly as Dr and Mrs John Smith, just as Mr John Smith and his wife are referred to as Mr and Mrs John Smith. I don’t think that Dr John Smith’s being entitled to use the title of Dr in any way detracts from his possessing his own Christian name. I think that the exception is where the wife possesses some other title, such as Professor, Dr, etc, in which case the joint form is Mr John and Professor Jane Smith (or as otherwise appropriate).

        I fear that you are mistaken about the Duke of Edinburgh. There was never any prospect of his being created King Dowager. That title would belong, hypothetically, to the widower of a Queen regnant who had during his wife’s lifetime enjoyed the title of King Consort. To the best of my knowledge the only precedent for such a title in British history is Lord Darnley, who was known briefly as King of Scots during his marriage to Mary, the Queen regnant. Philip (jure uxoris) and William III (suo jure) were Kings regnant, not merely consorts. This is because men bear only their own titles, whereas women are entitled to use the titles of their husbands. The situation in Spain, where the Duke of Cádiz became King of Spain (as consort, not as a regnant sovereign) upon his marriage to Queen Isabella II, is highly unusual. The Duke of Edinburgh has never been created Prince Consort: that title belongs to Prince Albert alone. The only styles, titles, attributes, dignities, honours, and so on, that he possesses are those that have been conferred upon him, in his own right, by his father-in-law and his wife.

        • Alexander, I stand corrected. Her Majesty is well and truly alive, and King Consort was the term I was looking for!

          You are also completely right about the co-regnant Monarchs and the title Prince Consort being uniquely that of Prince Albert.

          I can confirm, however that my husband’s name is not Joanna!

      • Jason R Gettinger says:

        If I am not mistaken, the role Dame Kiri plays in Daughter of the Regiment, is that of a dowager countess, it is a non-singing role requiring not very much dexterity on the stage. I trust Dame Kiri is well, hope so.

    • Alexander says:

      Diana, Princess of Wales, was the title by which she was entitled to be known as a former wife of a Prince of Wales until such time as she might have remarried. Her title during the course of her marriage was Her Royal Highness The Princess Charles Philip Arthur George, Princess of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall, Duchess of Rothesay, Countess of Chester, and Baroness of Renfrew. You are correct that the Duke of Edinburgh was granted the attribute of Royal Highness in 1947, but was not created a Prince of the United Kingdom until 1957. HRH Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester occupies an anomalous position: she is not a Princess of the United Kingdom by birth or by creation, but upon the death of her husband the Queen allowed her to style herself in that way rather than her having to use the title HRH The Princess Henry, Dowager Duchess of Gloucester.

  • G Ell says:

    I have never been able to abide this soprano, neither artistic profile nor person. Nothing original in artistic acumen or delivery or sound. The embodiment of the generic sounding lyric soprano. Can’t tell her from ten thousand others of her kind. Simply boring and vacuous. Words never meant anything to her. Everything a vocalise. What else? Well, I happen to enjoy her first Four Last Songs with Andrew Davis but that’s it. Happy retirement.

    • R James Tobin says:

      Glad you liked her ravishing Four last Songs, G Eli.

    • Please tell me what is wrong with the “lyric soprano? G Eli.

      It is the most common of the Soprano Fachs and the fact that some are attempting to push their voice into Spinto territory is doing them tremendous harm.

      That you don’t appreciate Dame Kiri is your perogative, but a whole vocal fach is going a bit far!

      • G Ell says:

        Nothing wrong with the lyric soprano fach. Problem resides in the crisis of sameness of sound and expression that we are living through. Enduring is the right word. Monotony is another. Boredom too. Safety in the face of natural uncertainty. Can you explain the vocal collapse of Upshaw, Battle and Bonney, to name just three?

        • MWnyc says:

          Those collapses weren’t entirely – or maybe even mostly – vocal.

          Dawn Upshaw is still singing, though less, but she lost interest in the mainstream operatic treadmill ages ago. She’s been concentrating on new works, often written for her, and is very into her teaching work at Bard College.

          Barbara Bonney, getting somewhat near the natural end of her time at/near the summit, went through an extremely painful divorce and just dropped out for a while, cancelling all her dates. (It didn’t help that the departing husband was a senior partner at her manager’s firm.) By the time she was ready to come back, it was rather later in the day for her.

          Kathleen Battle appears to be, quite simply, insane. Her singing has indeed deteriorated badly, but she’s so crazy that there’s no way to know if that was bad technique, an unwillingness to practice and stay in vocal shape, or something else. It doesn’t matter much really, because it seems fewer and fewer people are willing to deal with her. Based on reports and comments I read, she still interrupts herself while singing – onstage, in front of the audience – to fuss at the accompanist (pianist or conductor) over tempo or phrasing, she still has tantrums, and she still mistreats staff at hotels.

          • G Ell says:

            Your points are well taken. Also didn’t mean to revive the by now worn out topic of K. Battle, particularly since I never cared for her or her singing. I do not take after tweety birds. My point in raising these three ladies’ names was to underline the fact that none of them ever ventured away from their perceived rep/vocal limits. And yet, nature still had the upper hand upon their fates. It is unfair for sure, even cruel, but life ain’t fair even when one plays it safe and close to the chest. So why be so cautious and fearful as an artist? Why the straightjackets? Life can and does turn on a dime, so time to take chances and to arrest the vocal monotony and standardization and absence of artistic individuality that we have to endure season after season after season. Look around, it is simply dismal, like a Siberian winter. I do not believe I am making this up. Such is the extent of the pandemic and crisis.

          • MWnyc says:

            Dawn Upshaw has been taking chances for many years now. Perhaps they’re in a fach or in rep you don’t care for or pay attention to, but you can’t say that a singer who’s rolled around on the floor while singing Handel for Peter Sellars and who’s created roles for Kaija Saariaho, Osvaldo Golijov and John Adams – and the first singer ever to win a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius grant”) – “plays it safe and close to the chest” or “ever ventured away from [her] perceived rep/vocal limits” such as the Mozart she first became famous singing.

          • There should be not “too late in the day” vocally speaking when a singer is singing with sound technique. There have been singers who have vocally managed to perform into their 80s.

            Mental illness and the effects of stresses in a person’s life outside work can happen to anyone. The fact that Battle is in the public eye (like-wise Bonney) just makes it harder.

            The monotony can be attributed partially to a current trend for “pretty young things” amongst directors. Even for those singers who are going to be a Spinto or Dramatic type it takes time. It is not something that singers tend to achieve in their 20s.

            The rest is training. Twenty to thirty years ago, emphasis was put on developing the “singer’s formant”, this from aural evidence does not appear to be the case.

            Then there is the sheer fact that there are more lyric sopranos than any other type. It is a numbers game. The prevalence for young artist schemes and competitions that have a top age of 35 does not help. Many of the bigger voices do not reach their best until a singer is in their 40s.

            Weight of the singer is an irrelevance. However, the singer does require sufficient musculature to support and control the voice. That comes with a combination of age, practise, and training.

            That Dawn Upshaw is now concentrating on the teaching side is not to be belittled. Singers need good mentors.

  • Ignacio says:

    I thank Dame Kiri for the pleasure her lovely voice and fine musicianship always delivered. I found her work more successful in concert than in opera. Indeed there was a boring sameness to all her operatic performances which the beauty of the voice was not sufficient to override, even in Mozart and Strauss. The creaminess in the voice was always pretty but unvarying, with minimal, if any, ability to change color as a dramatic situation in opera or words of a lied would command. So let us be grateful for what she had and shared, but, placing her in context of 20th century vocal history, let us not make her into a greater singer than she was. The temptation has always been there to do so because the basic instrument was so pretty.

  • nyer says:

    A critic once called her “The world’s highest paid church soprano”.

  • PK Miller says:

    Dame Kiri is an extraordinary singer & human being. I’m 70 and can attest to the fact that even if the voice & technique are intact, one’s stamina diminishes! Always good to go out at the peak of your career.

    BTW, as a 1st generation German-American–if my German has gotten a little rusty from disuse–I am amused by the difficulties that can arise in titles. Ja, glaube Ich dass “Fraulein” ist bestorben–a la the French Mademoiselle or even American “Miss.” The problem noted reminded me of friends who were Dr. & MR. James Jones. The WIFE was a physician. He was only a BA. They had no end of problems with that! And btw, accurate or not, I love the “King Dowager” bit. Just what does the old biddy do, anyway except where fancy uniforms with a chest full of medals?! And no doubt, spend his days, saying, “Yes, dear, Yes, dear, jump in the Thames, dear? Of course, dear!!!!” 🙂 I also agree re Kathleen Battle-ax as friends put it. They heard her in NY last year & she was very shrill, every bit the picture of the temperamental diva.

    • Anon says:

      PK – your friends shouldn’t have had a problem. Wouldn’t it be “Mr James and Dr. Jane Jones” ?

      • Derek Castle says:

        Absolutely! Keep titles (with first names) separate.

        • My intention with my original post was to put this in triangular brackets, but as I found out on posting, those comments were simply deleted.

          For Dr and Mrs Joanna… it should have read Dr (his name) and Mrs Joanna.

          My comments about the Mr and Mrs status were originally Mr and Mrs (his name) Surname.

          I hope this clarifies things.

          The botch about “Consort” and “Dowager” was simply a mistake!

    • Jason R Gettinger says:

      and when Battle had the voice, she overacted, was fired by the Met.

  • jean2371 says:

    I have always admired Dame Kiri’s voice, but I thought she should have retired quite a few years ago. It is better to remember singers at their best, rather than become aware of their diminishing vocal powers. Her recent appearance as Dame Nellie Melba in an episode of “Downton Abbey” must have been a low point in her illustrious career.

  • Janey says:

    How awfully sad that a wonderful artist cannot be appreciate on her retirement day. One can only hope those criticizing have accomplished near what Dame Kiri has done.

    Brava, Dame Kiri. Thank you for of the beautiful performances, and for the wonderful example of hard work and professionalism.

    • Janey: I was 10 or 11 when I heard Dame Kiri sing “Let the Bright Seraphim” at the Royal Wedding (like most I was watching it at home on television). As soon as I knew I had a voice that could do that sort of stuff, it was one I had to sing.

      Whether someone likes a particular soprano or not is a matter of personal taste, and I’ve listened to many of her recordings with great pleasure. (The Mozart c minor mass with Cotrabus as the other soprano is one I particularly enjoy.) She has also been a great ambassador for classical singing.

      She will be appreciated in my mind. Sutherland was one of my favourite singers, hence my statement about it being a pity that her last few recordings and performances were not her best, is meant not as a damming indictment of her quality, more an observation.

      Criticism has to be taken in context. For someone who listens and studies singers and their abilities, certain comments are not a slating. For someone who listens only for pleasure, they may not be listening out for the same nuances, or have such a range of performances by the same artist with which to compare.

      Before criticising the critics, please ask yourself, are you comparing like with like?

      • Janey says:

        @Joanna I believe only that, on the day an opera career ends with a celebratory performance, it is not the time to detail decades long grievances. I am not criticizing critics with the comment to which you responded. I am criticizing those commenting here. There comes a time when simply acknowledging a career and life well-lived, or as well as possible, is the kindest and most appropriate thing to do.

        For example: “Dame Kiri retired today.” Response: “I hope she enjoys retirement.”

        For example: “Dame Kiri retired today.” Response: “I never liked her. Her voice has always been terrible.”

        This second option is pointless, of course, since Dame Kiri is retiring. It is also unnecessary.

        • @Janey: Of course one would love to always say lovely things about people. However, one of my pleasures with SlippedDisc is that people are free to express their opinions.

          Personally, I hope that Dame Kiri does what Dame Joan did and spend a happy retirement on the masterclass circuit. I’m certain she’ll prove both informative and popular.

  • Michael says:

    Oh dear! Here goes!

    “She has been an outstanding stage artist for almost half a century.” Her career may have lasted that long, but “outstanding stage artist” for less than 20 years. I was lucky enough to see her first performance at Covent Garden – truly a star was born, everything was so fresh, beautiful, spontaneous, but it was disappointing that later in her career, although the voice was still extraordinarily beautiful and creamy, she did not really deepen her interpretations: at least in my opinion. I have to agree with G Ell’s comment: “Words never meant anything to her.” If they did, I never believed her.

    I was also at the first night of the La Scala/Strehler/Abbado Simon Boccanegra production when it came to Paris with the Milan scheduled to repeat the main roles except for Mirella Freni who was to be replaced by Kiri te Kanawa. I had to stifle my inner thoughts when there was an announcement that KtK was indisposed and that Freni would sing in her place. I have since heard KtK sing Amelia very beautifully, but cannot believe that she ever came near to the exceptional stage artist, interpreter and Verdi singer that was Mirella Freni as Amelia or in any other role: an intense goose-bumps night!

    “her best-selling classical record (wedding apart) was probably the West Side Story” – I take this as a witty retort from NF. West Side Story is one of the great compositions of any era or any genre, but hardly fits into “classical”, although probably “best-selling” ! As for the recording, a curate’s egg, good in parts, but unfortunately – despite heroic efforts by the main protagonists – there were not many of the good parts.

    And the hat! On the day of that wedding, I was at Bayreuth, where I stayed for many years at a wonderful hostelry run by Max Seyferth. We watched the wedding on a tiny fuzzy TV and after a while Herr Seyferth brought in a tray of glasses full of his version of black velvet – Guinness and Sekt! I could hardly see the hat, but loved “Let the Bright Seraphim” as I knew it very well having sung it in the choir at school.

    A very happy retirement to Dame Kiri! It’s certainly not her fault that we cannot all be pleased all the time! There are very few singers where I can truly say I loved everything I ever heard, live or recorded….Pavarotti, Nilsson, Bjoerling, Callas…..and not many others!

    • R James Tobin says:

      “I have since heard KtK sing Amelia very beautifully, but cannot believe that she ever came near to the exceptional stage artist, interpreter and Verdi singer that was Mirella Freni as Amelia or in any other role: an intense goose-bumps night!”

      I share this enthusiasm for Freni’ exquisite performances, but I would wish for an end to the kind of critical thinking that demands that every artist be measured against the very best of someone else or be found wanting. That is simply an impossible standard.

    • G Ell says:

      Not meaning to degenerate this into a singers war (-: but, Michael, you loved everything Callas sang even at the bitter end during those heartbreakingly sad farewell recitals with piano? Or Nilsson’s late in the day, and some not so late, pitch trials? Or Pavarotti’s embarrassing pop excursions? Of the four names, only Björling comes off unscathed despite his drinking which helped cut short the life of one of the greatest tenors, even if some found his singing below pitch. I don’t detect this. Thank you for agreeing, as many also do, that words were nothing to Dame KtK. But to have an unthinking and uncritical press (no surprise about this fact) lavish uncritical praise based on a good “Seraphim” here and there or the occasional good Arabella or her first radiant Four Last Songs strikes me as beyond the pale, no pun intended. On another note, it is widely believed KtK is not a nice person, full of post colonial and maybe even ethnic inferiorities and resentments which she has sought to bury by joining the oppressors. And once the crown titles you Dame there is no turning back; they in effect own you from there on. May she enjoy her retirement.

      • Michael says:

        Yes, I chose my words carefully – “loved everything I ever heard” ! I was at one of Callas’ last two Royal Festival Hall concerts and, despite an almost completely worn-out voice, she still put extraordinary expression and intensity into her singing. “O mio babbino caro” was simply amazing. I heard Nilsson at her prime and towards the end of her career and did not experience any of the “pitch trials” you mention, nor are they evident to me in the recordings I have. Björling’s drinking may have contributed to the heart problems which caused his early death, but there is much evidence not only that he was in stupendous voice in the months before his death but also that drinking never affected his stage performances.

        As for Pavarotti, I should have restricted my comments to his classical singing (opera, Neapolitan songs etc) and excluded all the pop “excursions”, to use your very polite understatement!