Brian Edwards Media

Why I liked Yehudi Menuhin (and Alan Duff) better than Kiri Te Kanawa

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In five years on National Radio’s Top of the Morning show, which older readers of this blog may remember, I interviewed over 750 nationally and internationally well-known people. The stroppiest was undoubtedly Alan Duff, but by the end of the interview I liked him very much. The least pleasant was Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and by the end of the interview I disliked her intensely. Duff was hostile because, despite appearances, he is a very insecure person. Te Kanawa was unpleasant because she is a prima donna in both senses of the term and has such an elevated opinion of herself and of the respect which she believes she deserves, that she is contemptuous of lesser beings. 

So I was not at all surprised by her recent comments about other singers. Here’s a selection:

On Susan Boyle: You insult me by even wanting to bring [Susan Boyle’s success] into this conversation. I’m not interested. Let’s get off that subject. Move on. I’m doing something classical, not whiz-bang. Whiz bang disappears. It goes ‘whiz’ and then ‘bang’.

On Andreas Boccelli singing opera: He did once. He wants to be an opera singer, but he isn’t.

On Katherine Jenkins: We should talk about serious classical singers… There aren’t many of us.

On Hayley Westenra: Have you heard Hayley? She’s not in my world. She has never been in it at all.

On Charlotte Church and Katherine Jenkins in 2008: They are all fake singers, they sing with a microphone. These people, two or three years and they’re gone. People call them up-and-coming, but they never last.

Elitism is of course commonplace in the world of opera. To the opera buff nothing else qualifies as real music. I refuse to go to operas because I do not find it pleasant to sit through three or more hours of overblown musical theatre for three minutes of Nessum Dorma or Che Gelida Manina. But, even among opera stars, it is rare to encounter such publicly expressed contempt for other singers and singing styles as we have heard from Kiri Te Kanawa.

In a 40-year career as a radio and television interviewer I have come to the firm conclusion that truly great men and women are rarely arrogant or dismissive of lesser talents or intellects.

In 1970 I came to Auckland to interview the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, whom even Kiri Te Kanawa might concede deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as herself. I was horribly nervous. Chatting before the interview, Menuhin asked if I would be happy to give him an idea of the question line. He liked to spend a little time considering what he might say. Among the questions I intended to ask was: Has the pop guitar superseded the classical violin as the world’s favourite instrument? The violinist’s minder, who I think was someone from the NZSO, said, ‘You really  cannot ask Mr Menuhin a foolish question like that.’ Menuhin thought for a moment and replied, ‘My dear chap, that is the musical question of the age.’

I very much doubt that it was the musical question of the age, and the minder may well have had a point. But Menuhin clearly objected to the put down and rescued this fledgling interviewer. At the time I thought this a sign of greatness and I still think so today. 

As for Kiri Te Kanawa, a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, she will never move as many hearts as poor, plain Susan Boyle, a nobody from Blackburn. Nor will she sell as many records as Susan Boyle or Charlotte Church or Hayley Westenra or possibly even Andrea Boccelli. But these, I realise, will be such worthless criteria in the eyes of our great Kiwi diva that I am almost embarrassed to bring them up.

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40 Comments:

  1. I couldn’t agree more! Every time Kiri opens her mouth – other than to sing – it seems to be just another opportunity for her to sound pompous and arrogant.

    The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Okay, so she doesn’t want to be compared with other, non-classical opera singers and have to discuss them at length. No problem. All she has to do to is have some nice line ready like, “They do a different type of singing from me, but I wish them all the best.” She would deflect the line of questioning and still come across as gracious and pleasant, rather than bitter and jealous!

  2. I have to say that her comments on Susan Boyle didn’t surprise me. rarely have I come across a more graceless human being. I once interviewed her and it was the most cringingly embarrassing experience I ever had. If the subject wasn’t opera – or more specifically how great she art at opera – she wasn’t interested, dismissing questions and asking for another instead. The only others I remember being nearly as prickly were Van Morrison and – surprisingly – Neil Finn. I’m not sure if she realises how appalling she sounds when she attacks other artists. It’s as though she resents the temerity of other artists in making a living for themselves.

  3. I do question why a tenor, mezzo, or whomever is perceived (or is intimated) to be performing within the opera genre when in fact they are not and would never assume themselves to be. They may sing within the classical repertoire in the vocal range and perceived style used by opera but that is the end of it. There certainly is no comparison between Dame Kiri and Susan Boyle. That said, the humanist Pavarotti did not hesitate to sing alongside and applaud the (non-operatic) Bocelli plus many of the leading rock vocalists of the past 20 years. Placido Domingo has been warm in his appraisal of Bocelli. They recognise(d) perception is everything and in Pavarotti’s case it would have been a personal impossibility not to be generous.

    • I do question why a tenor, mezzo, or whomever is perceived (or is intimated) to be performing within the opera genre when in fact they are not and would never assume themselves to be. They may sing within the classical repertoire in the vocal range and perceived style used by opera but that is the end of it

      Well yes, but, as someone else has observed, there is only one thing worse than pop/rock/jazz singers trying to sing opera, that is opera singers trying to do sing pop/rock/jazz. Dame Kiri herself provides an excellent example.

  4. As someone who loves opera and is quite happy to sit through three or more hours of ‘overblown musical theatre’ I suppose by definition I must be eletist, not that it bothers me.

    Like her or loathe her, what KTK says is largely true. Boyle, Church, Bocelli, Westenra are NOT classical or opera singers. That is not to decry their talents and as entertainers they are talented and as you say probably sell more records and entertain more people than KTK, but numbers are not everything.

    The problem lies with the media and marketing agents who try and portray these singers as something they are not. One quite frequently reads references to Westenra as being an opratic singer, and she is not and she would not claim to be. Yet she still has a beautiful voice.

    I can understand KTK getting irritated with interviewers who have no idea what they are talking about, trying to draw some link between her and and Boyle, etc. Apart from anything else KTW would have served an apprecticeship of 10 yaers or more grinding hard work before coming to prominence, unlike Boyle and co who become instant sensations to satisfy a public need for novelty, and they just as quickly disappear.

    As regards your question to YM, that is a very valid observation and no doubt the old boy recognised it as such. But being such a gentleman he would have been just as polite if you had compared him to Sid Vicious.

    • Like her or loathe her, what KTK says is largely true. Boyle, Church, Bocelli, Westenra are NOT classical or opera singers. That is not to decry their talents

      The question is not whether Dame Kiri is right in what she said, but why she felt the need to say it at all. And you may not wish to decry their talents, but she quite clearly did.

  5. She, right ‘proudful’, our Kiri. Right proudful. But that’s what happens when you’re brought up barefoot-poor on the wrong side of the tracks. And with little schooling. Finds a bit of fame and fortune, and she starts actin’ all uppity. Dissing those who dare to steal her thunder. She hates being “compared”, because she sees herself as peerless.

    Her idea of measured grace and dignity, is a cursory acknowledgment towards her fawning fans. Kiri is simply incapable of showing humility, but she sure knows the meaning of “homage”. And she demands it, to boost her sense of self- aggrandisement, this wilting diva. Can’t bear to see some other singing-talent arise out of adversity, to crowd her out.

    If it weren’t for Sister Mary Leo, she’d probably be working in a Gisborne rest home, strumming a ukulele, while leading a sing-along with the old folk.

  6. I was part of a quartet who, much to our surprise got to the finals of the Mobil Song Quest [held in Dunedin] in 1965. Despite our tender age at the time, even then the ‘prima donna’ in Kiri [who won the solo section] was very much to the fore and I got the impression that us lesser mortals who indulged in singing folk songs, Negro spirituals etc were condemned to the same fate as Susan Boyle, Hayley Westenra et al. Andreas Boccelli is an acquired taste, but it doesn’t stop me listening to and admiring him. The reverse can also be said about opera singers venturing into other genres – I have an old video recorded of Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras rehearsing and recording the excellent music from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’. Those two were way out of their depth with the syncopated rhythms of some of the songs during rehearsal, though the finished product almost got there!

    • The reverse can also be said about opera singers venturing into other genres

      Couldn’t agree more. Opera/classical singers venturing into pop/rock/jazz invariably a disaster.

  7. “The question is not whether Dame Kiri is right in what she said, but why she felt the need to say it at all. And you may not wish to decry their talents, but she quite clearly did.”

    What is so wrong about expressing a strongly held opinion, like Merv, a guy eloquent in his views? Why should she not be able to do so without being labelled arrogant? You have been pretty forthright in your opinions of people when writing your blog, but noone thinks any the less of you and neither does it make you arrogant. Incidentally from the examples quoted and other views I have read of KTK she is not decrying these people’s talents; she is mainly saying that they are not classical or opera singers, and with the exception of Boccelli not one of them would disagree and in the case of Boccelli he has never succeeded in making that final leap.

    • Incidentally from the examples quoted and other views I have read of KTK she is not decrying these people’s talents

      Certainly looked like decrying their talents to me. As for the blogs, I like to think that I dish it out to people who deserve it, not to people who don’t. A subjective judgement I admit.

  8. Well done Brian and all commenters. (Spellcheck doesn’t like that one). All on the button.
    Cant imagine Kiri being happy about singing with U2, as Pavarotti successfully did.
    Merv…I know for a fact that she only plays here ukulele on the opera stage.

  9. I became wary of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa when she was asked in a British interviewer some years ago whether she was going to include any NZ music in her performance. Her reply was to the effect that NZers don’t make real music but she might include a little Maori song. The response in the late magazine Music in New Zealand involved great gnashing of teeth by snubbed composers and representatives of classical music. Send her back to England, it is now her true spiritual home.

    As a supporter of the Met Opera in High Definition presented by the enthusiasic Rene Fleming I find myself nonplussed to find out she might be on the new season’s line-up.

  10. On a related matter, Brian, why don’t you give opera another chance by going to see the latest NZ Opera production of Marriage of Figaro, a superb production and enjoyable even by those who hate opera. Why not give it a go with Judy; it wil be a wonderful night out and it will beat Avatar any time.

    • On a related matter, Brian, why don’t you give opera another chance by going to see the latest NZ Opera production of Marriage of Figaro, a superb production and enjoyable even by those who hate opera.

      Thanks for the suggestion, Ben. Encouraged by Donald Trott, I have given several operas ‘a chance’ and my view has not changed. Too many heros and heroines taking too long to die and just not enough good tunes. I can deal with Carmen and be amused by Gilbert and Sullivan – not real opera I know – but that’s about as far as it goes. You may, however, be surprised to learn that I’m a fan of classical music (and pop, rock, country….). In the car I listen to either Radko Hauraki or the Concert Programme. Just can’t stand opera and rap.

  11. Well, it’s not too everyone’s taste and it does not surprise me in the least that you like classical music and other genres for that matter.

    However please do not judge those us who do love opera by the pronouncements of Dame K. We don’t all have our heads shoved up our backsides.

    • However please do not judge those us who do love opera by the pronouncements of Dame K. We don’t all have our heads shoved up our backsides.

      Wouldn’t think of it. Some very good friends are opera buffs, not least Helen Clark.

  12. Poor old Keri is a one trick pony… at least those she criticizes can interview well!

  13. I think that I feel uneasy here.
    On one hand apparently arrogance but on the other straight unequivocal un-PC talking. Maybe we have become so used to mealy mouthed speech that softly oozes out safe talk, such as politicians saying what we want to hear, that a direct blast from one who has been single-minded about her life-long career makes us uncomfortable and she is judged as plain wrong. (Uneasy lies my head.)

    • I think that I feel uneasy here.

      I don’t think the issue here is Dame Kiri’s straight talking; it is the expression of her gratuitous contempt for other singers.

  14. I have a question for Dame Kiri. Would you like to be asked to (hopefully) sing the New Zealand national anthem at the RWC final in 2011? Yes? Who do you think will be asked, you or Haley Westrana?

    Geddit?

  15. P.S.

    I see opera as somewhat akin to Latin. Latin is, at times, a very beautiful language that seldom fails to repay the serious grammarian who troubles him or herself to learn its often complex rules. But ultimately, the raison d’être of Latin is gone. The civilisation and time that gave birth to it is extinct and far in the past. And so is the world that created opera. Opera is stultifying and frozen in the past because the stultifying society that created is long gone, swept away in revolutions where the peasants Dame Kiri affects to despise returned the favour in spades. Both Latin and opera are fundamentally dead, ossified relics of a past age to be observed as occasionally interesting and elevating – but largely irrelevant – artifacts.

  16. I have a friend who works at TVNZ….Kiri had arrived at Avalon Studios, her minder raced ahead and asked that staff, specifically cleaners, security etc were not to talk to her or indeed make eye contact as she was making her way to the studio……they were too beneath her to warrant her time.

    • I have a friend who works at TVNZ….Kiri had arrived at Avalon Studios, her minder raced ahead and asked that staff, specifically cleaners, security etc were not to talk to her or indeed make eye contact as she was making her way to the studio……they were too beneath her to warrant her time.

      Is that really true?

  17. Sanctuary: opera is not dead; it is a living and changing art form as is all music and theatre. Opera from the from its earliest origins is being rethought and performed to reflect the modern day, much to the discomfort of many conservative opera lovers. Mozart’s da Ponte operas are just as relevant to the modern day as they were when he wrote them. To say that Verdi’s great Shakespearian operas are dead is as ridiculous as saying Shakespeare’s works are ‘dead’. Watch a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio and try and tell me that this work has no relevance to the world in which we live. To say the operas of Wagner are dead is as absurd as saying the Greek theatre are dead.

    And operas are still being written, many having entered the repertoire such as works by Glass and Adams. Opera as with the theatre remains a relevant and living art. There are still countries in the world where opera is censored because of the emotions inspired; just as Verdi’s works were censored.

    To make the comparison with Latin just demonstrates an ignorance on your part of opera

  18. Singers dissing other singers, even when they do it more tactfully than Kiri, is also inherently a bad look, it seems.

    A couple of years ago I saw a TV chat show where Mel C, formerly of the Spice Girls (and the only one who can sing really well), responded candidly, but not bitchily, in regard to a question about the talent of a pop singer who had just released a new album. Mel observed – correctly – that the singer did not actually have a very good voice. The studio audience booed her for this remark.

    It was a useful example of how criticising your peers in public can be a risky undertaking!

  19. @ ianmac: When blaming political correctness it helps to remember that there is still a huge gulf between “plain speaking” and bloody rudeness. Her undisguised contempt for anything or anyone not opera is laughable. I’m sure she’s still trying to persuade herself that rock ‘n’ roll is a mere flash in the pan too.

  20. Ben: “What is so wrong about expressing a strongly held opinion, like Merv, a guy eloquent in his views?”

    Never will I say an unkind word about my friend, Ben, again. Never, ever.

  21. I am in reflective mood. I won’t say thoughtful in case I write something thoughtless. You see, I am peeling the first of my two afternoon mandarins of the fruit variety. This process invokes relection – bit like a good scratch really. I enjoyed the comments by Sanctuary (I’m reaching for 2nd manadarin) and assume sympathisers posit the same must apply to classical music given very few opera are restricted to the spoken word only. Must go. Out of mandarin.

  22. Good on you Kiri, say it like it is when the stupid arsewipe interviewers ask you silly irrelevant questions?

    • Good on you Kiri, say it like it is when the stupid arsewipe interviewers ask you silly irrelevant questions?

      I didn’t think her complaint was about the interviewer being an ‘arsewipe’. Quite the contrary.

  23. Merv, I will remind you of that the next time I say something to provoke your wrath!

    • Merv, I will remind you of that the next time I say something to provoke your wrath!

      I’d suggest, as I’ve done before, that the two of you get a room, but the image that conjures is simply too horrifying.

  24. Brian seriously true……i think she was making an appearance on Dancing with the stars….

  25. I am sorry, but with all due respect to Merv, I would not wish to share a room with him.

    As Woody Allen remarked, the lamb may well lie down with the lion, but the lamb will not sleep very well.

  26. Well if she was making an appearance with DWTS I hope she remembered to put her knickers on.

  27. Hi Brian, I wrote the Herald yarn that sparked the Hayley storm. I’ve never had an interview experience like that before or since, and given it was her PR wallahs who pitched I found it all rather bewildering. I hadn’t even asked for her opinion on Hayley, what I wondered was whether such popopera types had created a trickle up effect, were non-opera types becoming interested in the likes of her? And it wasn’t just what she said, it was the disdain she said it with. I asked around to check if it was just been me…oh, if only I could have written the stories I heard then. Sheesh.

    • Hi Brian, I wrote the Herald yarn that sparked the Hayley storm. I’ve never had an interview experience like that before or since, and given it was her PR wallahs who pitched I found it all rather bewildering.

      Nice to hear from you, Alan. You have my sympathies.

  28. I’ve worked a few operas, behind the scenes sorting out props, pushing bits of scenery around but i’ve never got it…

    my mate reckons sitting out front it’s choice cos you get than extra sensory experience. Not only sight and sound but smell. He loves the smell of opera ?

    to which i reckon kiri would smell divine, tell me it is so.