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OPERA'S COUNTESS EXITS WITH A CURTSY

Though soprano Kiri Te Kanawa's Tampa performance is billed as part of a career bow, it's less a farewell than it is a quiet au revoir.

Soprano Kiri Te Kanawa had a penchant for playing countesses. Her first big opera triumph was as the long-suffering countess in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro at London's Covent Garden in 1971.

And Te Kanawa's last opera performance was in the title role as the countess of Samuel Barber's Vanessa at Los Angeles Opera in 2004.

The one time I saw Te Kanawa in an opera she was playing, of course, a countess in Richard Strauss' Capriccio at San Francisco Opera in the early 1990s. Her glamorous looks were perfect for the young widowed Countess Madeleine, and her effortless legato was sumptuous in Strauss' elegant, floating arias.

But the soprano has an unsettling memory of that production, which featured costumes by the Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace.

"Versace met the person who killed him at the opening night party for Capriccio,'' she said in a phone interview in January. "I have some pictures of costumes from that production, and every time I look at them, I think of him.''

The well-tuned voice

Strauss and Mozart are the two composers that suit Te Kanawa best. She'll sing music by both in her recital Saturday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

"Singing Mozart is like lubrication for the voice,'' she said. "It's just so perfect. Mozart makes you sing exactly in the center of the note. In Puccini, you can whoosh, you can slide all over the place, and it's wonderful, a real freedom. But then you get back to Mozart, and you have to sing right in the center of the note. That's what Mozart's all about.''

Te Kanawa, 63, made her exit from the opera stage with no particular fanfare. She simply stopped appearing in operas. "You miss it, but you don't,'' she said. "I don't miss the wear and tear of preparing a new production. Rehearsing six hours a day, six days a week is tough on the body.''

A career shifts gears

Her recital tour, which began in Vancouver last September and includes four performances in Florida, is being billed as a "farewell'' tour, but that is mainly a matter of marketing, she said. "I'm not retiring, but it's probably true that I won't be back in Tampa or Naples or other places I'm singing. You have to be practical. At 63, I'm not looking at touring the world too many more times.''

Along with Strauss and Mozart, the recital program also includes Copland's setting of an Emily Dickinson poem, Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven?; three songs by Poulenc; a set of songs by South American composers Alberto Ginastera and Carlos Guastivino; Evening by Britten, an aria from Cilea's Adrianna Lecouvreur and Puccini's Sole e Amore.

There is some irony in Te Kanawa's association with aristocratic roles, because her own rise to stardom was a rags to riches story. Born in New Zealand, she grew up in a small town, adopted in infancy by an Irish mother and Maori father (her biological father was Maori). She went to Catholic girls school and sang in pubs as a teenager. It wasn't until she was 22, an advanced age for a singer, that she went to London to pursue an opera career.

British conductor Colin Davis recognized the soprano's talent after hearing her in an audition in 1969. "I couldn't believe my ears. I've taken thousands of auditions, but it was such a fantastically beautiful voice," Davis said.

Fostering young talent

Te Kanawa, who is divorced, with two grown children, lives in London. Much of her activity nowadays is devoted to the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation, founded four years ago to aid young musicians from New Zealand.

"I'm looking for a new generation of stars,'' said Te Kanawa, who enjoys being a mentor to singers from her homeland who come to London.

"They all ring me up. They come down to visit. I pay for their train fare, I pay for a pianist from 10 a.m. until about 5 p.m, and we sit and talk and sing and have lunch. If there are any personal problems, I can talk about it with them and it doesn't go any further than the two of us. I just try to support them, which is what I didn't get when I started.''

What does she look for in a young singer?

"I'm looking for stickability,'' she said. "For someone who is going to stick to it. Do they have dedication and ambition? Only then do I look at the voice.''

Te Kanawa is not a vocal teacher, but she has definite ideas about technique. "All singing comes from the rib cage,'' she said. "It happens in your throat, of course, but most of the work is being done down below, in the rib cage and your breathing. That's where I did all my singing from. It's like having the engine room working but not seeing it happen. Your voice is just the end of the air flow.''

The singer as critic

Though Te Kanawa won many a South Pacific singing competition in her youth, she despairs at the popularity of TV shows like American Idol.

"There are a lot of fake singers coming through,'' she said. "How do all these people who sing only with a microphone become rated as singers? They've never sung a live note in their lives.''

She is equally scornful of crossover opera groups like Il Divo, a hunky quartet created by Simon Cowell. "If you listen to them, they're pretty basic singers. They couldn't do the job at the Met.''

For all her operatic achievement, Te Kanawa is probably most famous for singing a Handel aria at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981. It reached a TV and radio audience estimated at 600-million. "It was quite a big day,'' she said. "It was their day. It wasn't my day. I was just part of what was necessary. If you looked straight up the aisle, I was on the left-hand side.''

The next year, Prince Charles, who chose the Handel, made Te Kanawa a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. "It wasn't deserved because I was terribly young when I got it,'' she said. "It's a huge accolade, and I'm very thrilled to have it. In certain company it's important. People do like to have that title around, especially in England.''

. . . and as angler

Te Kanawa's passion for fishing and golf fits right in with the lifestyle of the English ruling class. She has fished for trout in New Zealand, mahimahi in Mexico and Chinook salmon in Vancouver.

Naturally, like most anglers, the biggest fish she ever had on a line was one that got away.

"One day I was casting in a river in Iceland, and boom, I caught this fish,'' she said. "Nobody was around. I was alone with that fish. It was me and him, and it was a big one. Playing this beautiful salmon was gorgeous, but eventually he got off the hook. Someday I'll get back to that river and catch him.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

Preview

Kiri Te Kanawa

The soprano, with pianist Warren Jones, gives a recital at 8 p.m. Saturday at Morsani Hall of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $45.50-$105.50 plus service charges. (813) 229-7827; toll-free 1-800-955-1045; www.tbpac.org.

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