Kiri Te Kanawa in Philadelphia

Soprano still sings, and talks about it
By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Music Critic
The majestic voice of Metropolitan Opera radio announcer Milton Cross became painfully flummoxed at the name Kiri Te Kanawa. It was the soprano’s 1974 debut at the house in Verdi’s Otello – unscheduled since the scheduled singer fell ill – leaving Cross to barely stumble through the syllables, “KEE-REE… TAY… kah-nah-WAH.”
Three decades later, Te Kanawa, now 60, is laughing at the memory, prompted by a bootleg disc of the event: “The whole thing was bizarre. He couldn’t say my name at all! It was my so-called big break. If I’d known that, I’d have enjoyed it more.”
The opera world has long been unimaginable without the name Kiri Te Kanawa. The New Zealand-born, part-Maori soprano made a series of sensational debuts in the 1970s, became a ubiquitous recording and stage artist in the 1980s, and began what were assumed to be farewell performances in the 1990s. However, when her marriage dissolved in 1997, singing loomed larger in her life. Never a quick study, Te Kanawa even learned a new opera, Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, which she performs this season in Los Angeles.
Though her recital programs once included items as modest as parlor songs, Te Kanawa will open the Kimmel Center’s classical season on Saturday with an ambitious array of Handel and Vivaldi arias plus songs by Debussy and Poulenc.
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