Kiri is just one of the dames

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

Downton Abbey with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa guest starring as Dame Nellie Melba.

Downton Abbey with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa guest starring as Dame Nellie Melba.

Maggie Smith (right), with Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter, in A Room with a View, for which Dame Kiri sang Puccini's acclaimed O Mio Babino Caro.

Maggie Smith (right), with Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter, in A Room with a View, for which Dame Kiri sang Puccini's acclaimed O Mio Babino Caro.

IT WAS a veritable bunch of grand Dames.

There was a certain symmetry when New Zealander Dame Kiri Te Kanawa played Australia's Dame Nellie Melba on Downton Abbey. And it was her second project with Dame Maggie Smith - Dame Kiri provided the sublime Puccini piece, famous in A Room with a View.

"I'm an ordinary country girl", who happens to have had an extraordinary career for 46 years, singing for kings and queens and presidents and earning a reputation for not suffering fools. She was on the line from her home in the Sussex Downs in England. She spoke of her career highs and lows, her passion for young talent, the racism of her youth, but lost her reserve when the conversation turned to her children and the price they paid for her career.

And I was, needlessly, but unavoidably, terrified of not appearing the grand fool when interviewing her . . .

You come across not as stiff and starchy but relaxed and accessible, which must give you a shortcut into people's hearts. Um, I need to tell you I'm an ordinary person. I'm a country girl and I like ordinary things. I don't have illusions of anything - grandeur or anything. So I s'pose I come over as, I don't know, just like that. I hope I do.

Your career has not been contained or confined by opera houses and you've grasped many opportunities to embrace popular culture, such as your first project with Maggie Smith. Your contribution to A Room with a View was the crowning element that made the whole film so sublime. How did it happen for you? A few things happened. They wanted a voice, and a producer who did my recordings knew about me and put my name up. Wheels within wheels.

What did you think of the finished film? I saw it in New York and I just loved it. Ahhh. And I loved my music, too; it worked very well. I thought that's very nice, a nice voice! [Laughs] And it was a very, very lovely film, with great actors.

And your most recent project, again with Maggie Smith, is another example of you embracing popular culture. How did Downton Abbey come about?Downton happened because I met Julian Fellowes [the show's creator, writer and producer] many years ago down here where I live [near Lewes, in Sussex Downs] and recently, by chance, he asked me to play the part. He's a very nice person. Of course I couldn't refuse could I?! Not really.

You didn't appear on screen with Maggie Smith but you crossed paths? Yes, we did. She's wonderful. Well, they're all wonderful. The whole cast was wonderful.

Your Maori heritage you've said is important to you and singing is a hallmark of Maori culture. The Maori people must be as proud of you as you are to be Maori. Very much, yes, but I think my whole country is very proud of me, as I am proud to be a New Zealander.

Did you grow up with a strong sense of Maori culture? Not really. My father of course is Maori. At the time when I grew up it was very different to what it is now. Now it's very accepted. The language is accepted. When I grew up it wasn't. The Maori were not accepted. It's totally different now.

How did that affect you as a young girl? You just go through it. It didn't seem to affect me. Nasty things happened. I remember being sent home from a birthday party because I was the only girl in the school not invited. And I was called a half-caste, I was called a Mowwwwwrie. I look back and did it really matter? I'm not affected by it. You develop a thick skin, hopefully.

You said you would've been a better parent if you hadn't pursued your career. Surely, that wasn't an option? Ohhh, gosh. Ask many parents, you know. It's very difficult to say should I or shouldn't I? My daughter said: "Oh Mum, you were never there for me." I said: "I was there as much as I could be." Now she says: "No, you were there, I know you loved us, but sometimes it was difficult." It was terribly, terribly difficult and even now you're mentioning it it breaks my heart I couldn't always be there for my children. Even if I'd been there 24 hours it would never have been enough, never! It's one of my big regrets. To have the career I had was extraordinary and I don't know what the answer is. As every parent will say, I did the best I could. My children were just over here for my 70th birthday. It was the most precious time. I felt like, you know, I hadn't been too bad! They're fabulous children. I'm so lucky.

Sydney Opera House (May 20), sydneyoperahouse.com or 9250 7777 or ticketek.com.au or 132 849.

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