Dame Kiri Te Kanawa at the Singer’s Studio of Mirjam Helin Competition

On Wednesday afternoon, there was a warm and genuine atmosphere at the Camerata Hall of Helsinki Music Centre, the kind one can feel in the presence of a great artist. Singer’s Studio – a version of Inside the Actors studio – was organized as part of the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition. Jury member Dame Kiri Te Kanawa talked about a singer’s career and answered the questions posed by competitors.

Kiri Te Kanawa
Kiri Te Kanawa in the Mirjam Helin Singers's Studio

Admirers of the legendary singer, students of singing and the participants of the Mirjam Helin Competition were in for a relaxed atmosphere with Te Kanawa and interviewer Pekka Hako. Te Kanawa told about her dogs, for example, who cause trouble romping around at her home in England. That kind of quarrel sounds like an opera libretto, Hako said – and Kanawa added: “My dogs come from Glyndebourne.”

Making sacrifices, finding the right teachers and making oneself feel secure

Te Kanawa emphasized the sacrifices she had to make for her musical career. Even though a good singer can sometimes manage with a bad teacher, a young singer should find the right people around her/him. “I had some hits and misses during my early career, but after that I had the same teacher for 30 years”, Te Kanawa told. “With Hungarian Vera Rózsa we solved all the problems I encountered. As a young singer you need people who love and take care of you and who you respect, not people who say ‘yes’ to everything.”

After her own career, Te Kanawa has set up a foundation carrying here name, helping New Zealanders embarking on a singing or musical career. “My foundation has helped over a hundred singers now. They choose their own way and schools and only rarely I might say them: that is not a good thing. We also support them, if things go wrong.” From her own career, there is one experience she is particularly proud of: the recording of Verdi’s Otello (1991) with Sir George Solti and Luciano Pavarotti. “Pavarotti only recorded it once – and Solti died some years later.”

A singer cannot afford much of negative self-criticism, Te Kanawa thinks. “You cannot doubt even when you think it is going wrong.” As for competition repertoire, one should choose pieces that one is ready to do onstage if an agency or opera house needs someone. “You need a drive and some security around you. You need to know where your voice is most beautiful and then aim there and around it. It is like golf: you need to build up the play.”             

Text: Justus Pitkänen