Dame Kiri v Hayley: long white gloves off

‘She's not in my world and never will be.' It's Te Kanawa versus Westenra in a battle of the stars. Nigel Benson is match referee.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is quite right when she says real opera singers don't need microphones.

But picking on Hayley Westenra to make her point is a bit like shooting Bambi to protest against live animal exports. ‘‘She's not in my world and never will be,'' Dame Kiri sniffed before her concert in the Auckland Domain last Sunday night.

‘‘She's one of those singers singing today, very successfully [but] they are all fake singers. They sing with a microphone. They are the new fakes for the new generation coming through.

But they can only perform with a microphone and they've, basically, never had any formal training. I've had a 40-year career, but these people . . . two or three years and they're gone.''

Dame Kiri was banging on the same drum in an interview with the Otago Daily Times before her concert with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in Dunedin last April.

‘‘It's important to preserve the great traditions of opera,'' she told me.

‘‘The classical world is being invaded by singers who can only sing through a microphone. There's an awful lot of that going on now.''

Dame Kiri (who celebrates her 64th birthday this Thursday) has come a long way since she was born Claire Mary Teresa Rawstron, in Gisborne in 1944.

Her time as a top echelon singer has passed - something the diva herself has acknowledged.

Her last opera role was in December, 2004, although she continues to perform operatic arias in concert.

It was also evident at the Dunedin Town Hall last year, when she produced a performance which was effortlessly eclipsed by 26-year-old Anna Leese in the same venue a few days later.

Dame Kiri's attack (which she subsequently said was ‘‘taken out of context'') is the understandable - and forgivable - railing of a fading star.

What Dame Kiri has battled and sacrificed to achieve, it might appear Westenra has been handed on a plate.

Hayley Dee Westenra was born in Christchurch on April 10, 1987.

She released her first album, Walking in the Air, at 13 and a year later had a record deal with Universal and a second album, Hayley Westenra.

Her debut international album, Pure, entered the British pop album charts at No 8 and the classical charts at No 1, making her the fastest-selling debut classical artist.

Her latest album, Treasure, debuted at No 1 in the New Zealand album charts.

Dame Kiri's criticism of Westenra is really a criticism of the way high-end singing is evolving.

Westenra's blend of pop and opera, dubbed ‘‘popera'' by aficionados, is anathema to Dame Kiri, but she is fighting a losing battle.

Opera and other traditional arts, such as ballet, are reinventing themselves to retain appeal in a changing world.

Dame Kiri is also being a bit disingenuous with her criticism: she has benefited from overhanging microphones at many concerts.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is a feisty character and lives in rarified air. She admonished a Sydney High Court judge last year in her case against Australian singer John Farnham (the infamous panties-on-the-stage case) for failing to address her as ‘‘Dame Kiri''.

But you suspect, when meeting her, that her haughtiness is the armour of a very tender woman.

Dame Kiri has given New Zealand opera much more than she has taken from it.

She has inspired generations of singers, establishing the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation in 2005 to help nurture talented young New Zealand singers.

Westenra will undoubtedly be hurt by Dame Kiri's comments.

All young New Zealand classical singers look up to Te Kanawa. How do you respond to an attack from an icon? You don't.

The young singer's silence speaks well of her.

Hayley Westenra is an extremely talented and popular performer at a time when the international stage is not exactly overcrowded with NZ divas.

There is room for both Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Hayley Westenra.

- Nigel Benson is arts reporter for the Otago Daily Times

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