Wednesday 23 October 2019

Kiri: the unsung story

Myles McWeeney reads a new book in which Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is exposed as a complex and capricious character.New Zealand is a remote country, and in the 1940s the little community of Tokomaru Bay, 50 miles from Gisborne on the eastern Pacific coast, was about as remote as you could get without falling off the edge of the world.

It was here that deserted mother-of-six Thelma Rawstron, the daughter of Irish emigrants living on the wrong side of the tracks in the town's Maori shanty-town, struggled as a cleaner to bring up her family.

Her daughter Noeleen, copper-haired and steely-willed, hadn't helped matters by giving birth to an illegitimate son, James Patrick, several years before, and when in 1943 she became pregnant a second time, her situation was desperate. The father was a married Maori butcher called Tieki `Jack' Wawatai, who had returned to his wife and family unaware of Noeleen's pregnancy.

Several weeks before she was due to have her baby, Noeleen Rawstron made the difficult journey to Gisborne where, on March 6 1944, she gave birth to a baby girl whom she called Claire Mary Teresa. She left the name of the girl's father blank on the birth certificate. A few weeks later, Noeleen gave Claire up for adoption and returned to pick up her life with her mother and her son Jimmy in Tokomaru Bay. She maintained a steadfast silence about the drama of that year for the rest of her life.

Baby Claire did not remain an orphan very long. She was adopted by a middle-aged couple, Maori small businessman Atama `Tom' Te Kanawa and his wife Nell. She was re-named Kiri, a Maori word meaning `bell' or 'skin of the tree' according to dialect, after Tom's father.

Although the newly-named Kiri Jeanette Claire Te Kanawa couldn't have known it yet, she had gained a redoubtable new mother. In the course of a colourful and eventful life, the part-Irish Mrs Tom Te Kanawa had found herself addressed by any number of names, not all of them charitable. She had been christened Hellena Janet Leece, but had subsequently been addressed at different times and with varying degrees of happiness as Mrs John Green and Mrs Stephen Whitehead. She ran a successful boarding house in Gisborne, and some say she may have also conducted illegal backstreet abortions.

The baby's new father Tom Te Kanawa, while soft-spoken and deeply reserved, could trace his bloodline directly back to a legendary and aggressive Maori figure, Chief Te Kanawa of the Maniopoto tribe.

Although he gave his newly adopted daughter, soon to become the apple of his eye, a Maori name, Tom Te Kanawa had always refused to speak Maori or let her have anything to do with his native culture. Kiri was brought up as a white girl. But being brought up white did not protect her from racial prejudice, and Kiri was frequently deeply hurt by the then current perception that Maoris were second-class and dirty citizens.

Left to her own devices it is doubtful if Dame Kiri Te Kanawa would have become the glamorous and most instantly recognisable female face in classical music. She was a solitary, reserved and shy young girl and academically very lazy. Something of a tomboy, she preferred to spend her time with her quiet father who taught her golf and archery. But if young Kiri lacked ambition and drive, her doting mother Nell Te Kanawa possessed these qualities on behalf of her daughter in spades. She was the original stage mother from hell, cajoling, blustering and bullying anyone whom she thought could advance her talented daughter's nascent career as a singer.

Kiri was born with an outstanding gift. Her voice was truely remarkable and her mother Nell was determined she was going to make the very most of it. Nell's ambition was to see her daughter sing opera in Covent Garden, an unthinkable aspiration for a half-caste Kiwi back then. But Nell was nothing if not shrewd and she targeted the one woman in New Zealand who could help her achieve this ambition, a nun called Sister Mary Leo, a member of the Sisters of Mercy community in Auckland, widely regarded as the best singing teacher in New Zealand.

Not at all put off by the fact that Sister Mary Leo had refused to take on her daughter as a pupil, Nell persuaded her husband to sell his business, put their house on the market and dragged a reluctant Kiri to a new life in the throbbing metropolis of Auckland.

Naturally Nell's perseverance paid off, and soon a deeply unhappy Kiri had become one of Sister Mary Leo's 200 private pupils.

Kiri Te Kanawa's rise to the top of the operatic world has been well documented by the age of 30 she had the musical world eating out of her hand as one of the supreme sopranos of her generation. What has been less well documented is her complex and often capricious personality forged by her unconventional adoptive background and the demands made by her domineering mother.

The general public might well have taken Kiri Te Kanawa to their collective heart, but she was not by any means universally loved within the music business. Fellow singers found her ungenerous and very scathing of their own talents. She was downright lazy about studying scores and could be stubborn as a mule if she didn't want to do something. For one thing, success had come very easily to her.

Her wonderful voice had won many competitions and substantial prize money. Early recordings of songs from musicals had earned her a lot of cash and, thanks to her mother playing the native New Zealand card for all its worth, the Maori community had emptied its coffers to provide her with a substantial sum to fund her studies in Britain.

Nothing illustrates Kiri's unbending capriciousness as the story of a special memorial service held at Westminster Abbey in London for New Zealand's popular left-wing Prime Minister Norman Kirk, who had died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 51. All over New Zealand countless thousands had tuned into the BBC's broadcast of the service, the highlight of which was to be `If Know My Redeemed Liveth' from the Messiah, sung by Kiri Te Kanawa.

As the conductor raised his baton, radios everywhere fell silent and to listeners' astonishment and deep anger, BBC announcer Godfrey Talbot said: ``Miss Te Kawana says she does not wish her voice to be broadcast outside the confines of Westminster Abbey.'' The singer had decided her voice was tired and in a blazing row the night before had downfaced her country's High Commissioner and his seething staff and simply refused to permit the broadcast.

Kiri's ability to stick to her guns, no matter how hurtful it might be to others, is legendary. In January 1985 her adored father Tom died of a heart attack at the age of 83. She refused to fly from her home in Britain to be at the funeral, and then entered into protracted litigation with her adoptive family over his will. He had left everything to Kiri, but Kiri's elder step-sister believed she had a right to some of her late mother's property and determined to fight Kiri for it. Kiri only relented when her step-sister threatened to go public with the row, which would mean negative publicity for the superstar of opera. She never spoke to Nola again.

In a similar breakdown of family relations she abruptly cut her brother out of her life. This was a particularly poignant event as Kiri and Jimmy Rawstron, her blood-mother Noeleen's son, had only very recently established a relationship.

In 30 years of marriage Kiri Te Kanawa's husband, Des Park, had gradually assumed almost total control of access to Dame Kiri, and kept from her any correspondence he thought might distress her. In a bitter row the marriage was by then on the skids thanks to Park's adultery he revealed that her brother had written to her, but he had had her solicitor reply that she was ``not emotionally ready to meet him''.

In 1996, in the throes of the bitter divorce negotiations with Des Park, Kiri began corresponding with Jimmy Rawstron, who had lived the first 40 years of his life in total ignorance of his relationship with the world's favourite soprano. After three months of correspondence they met in the Summer of 1996 in Sydney. It was an emotional meeting, and both cried. Kiri asked Jimmy to keep their meetings secret to avoid a media circus, and he, anxious that he not be thought to exploiting his rich and famous sister, agreed.

But in November 1997 New Zealand's most downmarket tabloid newspaper, The New Zealand Truth, ran a story headlined `Kiri Turns to Lost Brother', which contained a number of direct quotes attributed to Jimmy Rawstron. Jimmy denies he spoke to the reporter concerned, but when he tried to reach Kiri on a number of occasions to explain, he was told by her aides, in no uncertain terms, that she never wanted to speak to him again.

Not so very long before this all happened, respected producer Stephen Dee remarked of Kiri Te Kanawa: ``She's a bloody-minded woman ... no-one has ever had the guts to say no to her ... She's always just had people saying, `you're gorgeous, you're wonderful, you're lovely', so she's never had any expectations of having to be intellectually responsible.'' Her treatment of her brother Jimmy is part and parcel of this inability to form genuinely close relationships based on mutual trust and respect.

And her isolation as she approaches her 60th birthday is growing.

``Being an opera singer is a desperately lonely life,'' she once said, blaming her husband Des's fiercely protective personality for isolating her from friends. It is all the lonelier now. In May this year she told an interviewer: ``Now I just don't ever let anyone that's new in my life come in.''

She has never really rid herself of the ruthless and relentless drive to prove herself, and rise above her humble and illegitimate beginnings.

* Kiri Her Unsung Story by Garry Jenkins and Stephen d'Antal, is published by Harper Collins and is priced at £17.99 sterling.

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