‘Smoke inhalation and lots of vodka’ – soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa on working with Leonard Bernstein

1 March 2024, 16:03

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa remembers working with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story!

By Kyle Macdonald

In two exclusive Classic FM shows, the beloved New Zealand soprano celebrates her 80th birthday by sharing the music, moments, and maestros that have shaped one of the most remarkable careers in opera history.

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Few opera singers are as beloved as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who rose to extraordinary fame in the 1970s and 80s with sensational performances of Mozart, Strauss and Puccini at London’s Covent Garden.

As she celebrates her 80th birthday, the great New Zealand soprano has joined Classic FM for two exclusive shows. On Friday’s programme Dame Kiri is in conversation with a fellow singer and good friend, Classic FM presenter Aled Jones, leading to some fascinating stories about her life on stage.

Read more: 20 of the greatest sopranos and mezzos of all time

Aled and Dame Kiri speak about how they both have sung for the great American composer, Leonard Bernstein. For the soprano, it was in 1984 for a major new recording of Bernstein’s 1961 musical West Side Story, with Spanish tenor José Carreras and the composer himself at the podium.

The soprano shared that she always dreamed of being the musical’s leading role, Maria, from when she was a little girl.

“I was in New Zealand and I saw the film and I loved it – and there I was with the great master himself.”

Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras in a photoshoot for their recording of West Side Story.
Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras in a photoshoot for their recording of West Side Story. Picture: Alamy

Dame Kiri recalled those days in New York spent with the famously chain-smoking composer. “We did West Side Story, and that was quite an experience, as he smoked through the whole thing,” she said. “It drove me mad, all that cigarette smoke.

“I said, ‘You’re going to have to stop. I’m dying of smoke inhalation’ – and he sort of did.”

Kiri continued her memory of her time with the composer. “Then the vodka – oh dear. Yes, lots of vodka.”

That recording session was famously a tense one. Footage of Bernstein’s open frustrations with his leading tenor, José Carreras, would go viral years later. “I would say that he was in one of his strange moods,” Dame Kiri remembers. “I think because he was creating West Side Story, which was, I suppose, very near to him and he wanted it to be perfect,” the soprano recalls.

“We were all terrified of him and he was quite a master – you know, he’s like Mozart. He was creating beautiful music and we loved being there with him. We didn't want him to be upset or anything. He was just too special.”

“He was very nice to me, very kind,” Dame Kiri added.

Leonard Bernstein in 1984.
Leonard Bernstein in 1984. Picture: Alamy

Born in Gisborne on the east coast of New Zealand in 1944, Dame Kiri told Aled of her simple childhood, with few material things – she did not see a television until she was 14.

Her mother identified her remarkable singing voice early and encouraged her to perform and develop her talent. The soprano’s first public performances came on local radio stations. In Friday night’s show, she plays Aled one of these remarkable recordings from when she was eight years old.

Dame Kiri then shares her very personal view of her career in opera and classical music, from her arrival in London as an unknown New Zealand singer, to the sensation she created as the Countess in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House in 1971.

Kiri Te Kanawa at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 1971
Kiri Te Kanawa at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 1971. Picture: Getty

Over the years that followed, Dame Kiri worked with almost all the great singers and conductors of the second half of the 20th century. With Aled, she recalled many of the personal connections and friendships with fellow singers and conductors Sir Colin Davis and Sir George Solti, who she affectionately termed the “Hungarian mafia”.

On her second exclusive Classic FM show at 9pm on Saturday night, the singer turns radio presenter for the first time, introducing many of the recordings that have influenced and inspired her over the years.

Dame Kiri ended her conversation with Aled by talking about the work of her foundation, which she founded in 2003. The Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation supports young New Zealand singers making the journey to the opera stages of Europe, just as she did in the 1960s.

“I discovered that so many young people have no finance going to England, [so] we would give scholarships to young students,” she said.

The foundation also delivers financial support, mentoring and career guidance and has supported dozens of New Zealand singers. She spoke with pride of a new generation of New Zealand singers at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne.

How will Dame Kiri be celebrating her 80th birthday? “I know there’s a very nice invitation by our Governor-General for several of my friends and colleagues and our foundation sponsors to have a cocktail party at Government House,” she reveals.

And that would feel a very appropriate way for a living legend of music to celebrate.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: A Classic FM Exclusive – Friday 1 and Saturday 2 March, at 9pm on Classic FM.