World-renowned soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa was on board Saga Sapphire for the Gallipoli centenary. She talks to Julie Peasgood about her strong work ethic

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Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Image credit: Yuki Sugiura.

I never thought I had a special gift – I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about and still can’t. There are so many people who are incredibly talented and much brighter than me and much better musicians – somehow I just got into the slot that went into the happy line. I’ve never sat back and said “I’m doing incredibly well”. I’ve loved every minute and it’s flown by. Having had almost a 50-year career, I’ve now got another career working with my Foundation students.

I had some horrible nuns who taught me as a child, but then from the age of 14 I was taught by a wonderful nun who inspired me. She nurtured us all and put us into choirs. I would sing the solo and the other girls would say “Get her, she’s got the solo.” I was one of those lucky people and also I worked hard. It didn’t come easy. But I took the opportunities. Every time one came along I embraced it.

Everything was about music. My parents came to me when I was 16 and said “OK, are you going to study?” And I said “OK.” What else was I going to do? And then my mother said. “We’re going to England”. So we went off to England. I didn’t have to audition for the London Opera Centre because the principal had heard me sing.

Figaro at Covent Garden was a very big highlight in my career. And it went on from there. You’d get something and be incredibly excited and you’d work up to it, get through it – and then it’s behind you and you’re on to the next challenge. Of course the Royal Wedding in 1981 was a highlight. I haven’t done every role I want to do, but you can only put so much into your brain and also have a life.

I loved playing Dame Nellie Melba in Downton Abbey. I have the hugest admiration for the actors – when you see them you know you are no challenge to them. They have learned their trade and they are brilliant. I could never do that.

I do still practise, especially for concerts such as the ANZAC Day Memorial on Saga Sapphire. My work ethic is very strict. I’ve never quit on anything in this business. I absolutely insist on a strict work ethic with the students in the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation too. They have to know a piece by heart when they come to their next session with me. Everything has to be professional.

The spirit of ANZAC Day means everything to me. We were brought up with it – it’s not a light subject. And after 100 years, to celebrate it in this way was just fabulous and so moving. Even in London it was all about New Zealand and Australia, which was amazing. If I was to go anywhere in the world right now, I would come back to Gallipoli.

I haven’t done many cruises but I’m surprised how much I like them – it’s extraordinarily good. I think it’s wonderful. We’re sailing along and there’s not a bump, not a roll, nothing. What I love is there are so many activities. I would do this again, absolutely.

Being busy is relaxation for me. I have taken up painting in oils and I love sewing, but I have full-time Foundation students now. They come to the house for the whole weekend and we just talk, work and discuss things – problems and we chat about strategies. There’s a lot that goes on privately in their lives, and the Foundation tries to mentor and support them financially. I’m always raising funds but I also spend them wisely – it’s other people’s money and it’s never wasted. I just want to pass on what I’ve learnt.

Way back, I met a singer from Finland who said: “Don’t make your country embarrassed. Always remember where you come from.” And that’s what I do – I always wanted my country to be proud of me. I want to be someone who the young kids think, “She’s kept a fairly good record, and that’s what we should all do.”

I don’t follow a skincare routine – I use wet wipes and E45 cream. I think because I have done so much singing my facial muscles have always been taut, but I’m 71 now so I’m sure my jawline will drop. I use my NutriBullet every day. I go to the market a lot and buy everything fresh. I grow my own vegetables too and I’m going to have my own chickens soon. I like cooking good, natural, healthy food.

My dogs are very dear to me. They are three generations of Pomeranian Yorkies – Nyack, Millie and Abbey – all from the same parents. Every time I start singing Abbey joins in. We start at six in the morning and there’s a whole pattern to the day with them. They are only tiny, four kilos max, and they do exactly as they’re told. They even came to the set of Downton with me – Abbey was named after the series.
A Grecian Odyssey
Saga is offering a 25-night cruise on Saga Pearl II for 25 nights departing Southampton from £4,460pp. For more info or to book visit saga.co.uk/cruises or call 0800 505 030.

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