Te Kanawa celebrates with premiere of Heggie songs at Ravinia

A shimmering voice and captivating stage presence transformed New Zealand-born soprano Kiri Te Kanawa into one of the most acclaimed operatic stars of the 1970s and ’80s and have earned her a lasting place in the affection of fans.

“She was the one for all those years, and she actually made me like opera when I didn’t know I liked opera,” said composer Jake Heggie, who has gained international recognition for such operas as “Dead Man Walking” (2000) and “Moby-Dick” (2010).

The Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, which has had a long association with the esteemed singer, decided to celebrate her milestone 70th birthday earlier this year by commissioning Heggie to write a new work for her. The resulting set of five settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, “Newer Every Day,” will be the centerpiece of an ambitious recital on Aug. 12 that will also include art songs by such composers as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Strauss and Enrique Granados.

“I’m incredibly honored that they would consider doing something like this,” said Te Kanawa. “Really, I feel very, very special.”

In a Sun-Times interview before her last Ravinia concert, the soprano, who lives near Glyndebourne, England, said she was trying to pare back her schedule. But it is clear that in the two years since, she has had little success with that goal.

“At this very moment, and up until Christmas, I’m as busy as I have ever been,” she said.

Te Kanawa, who devotes much of her time to mentoring young opera talent, will arrive at Ravinia about a week before her concert so she can spend an hour with each of the 14 vocal students in Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, coaching them on technique and performance.

In addition, she will spend three days rehearsing “Newer Every Day,” with Heggie, who will serve as pianist for that portion of the concert. Kevin Murphy, who directs the music institute’s vocal program, will accompany her in the rest of the program.

Heggie and Te Kanawa have touched base about the work once via Skype, and the soprano already knows the five songs well. Unlike some other contemporary composers, she said, Heggie writes tunes that stick in one’s mind.

“He’s incredibly easy to learn, easy to remember,” she said. ‘What happens is that he makes you fall into the next phrase or the next entrance. At this stage, I’m still counting [rhythms] a little bit, which I hope I won’t do in the next few days.”

Heggie, who was first enamored with popular vocalists such as Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand, fell in love with opera in part through the voices of Frederica von Stade, Janet Baker, and, of course, Te Kanawa.

“Aside from the fact that it is just a ravishingly beautiful voice that is plummy and full,” the composer said of the soprano’s vocal gift, “it just seemed to inhabit so fully the drama and the lyricism of the music. And there is always this very joyful core to it, where you could tell that she loved singing. She was reveling in making this sound. And you don’t feel that sometimes from singers.”

Heggie turned pages for pianist Roger Vignoles during a Te Kanawa recital in the early 1980s at the University of California at Los Angeles when he was an undergraduate student in piano and composition, never dreaming he be able to write for her someday. So, he was ecstatic when Welz Kauffman, the Ravinia’s chief executive, asked him to take on this commission, and pleased that Te Kanawa would agree to it.

“I think that makes a huge statement about who she is an artist,” the composer said. “We have this idea of the famous Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who only sings the classical rep, but my experience of her has been completely different. I’ve always heard her incorporating and learning new things.”

Kiri Te Kanawa

Martin Theatre, Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park

8:30 p.m. Aug. 12

$95 and $125 reserved seats, $10 lawn

(847) 266-5100

www.ravinia.org

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