The Well-Tempered Ear

Who is the better classical diva – Kiri Te Kawa or Renee Fleming?

September 18, 2009
9 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Two of the world’s top singers are in the news.

Soprano Kiri Te Kanawa (below right) – now 65 and past her prime, which was prime indeed  — has backed off from suggestions that she might retire, according to press account in the U.S. and Australia.

Kanawa-Kiri-Te-3

Meanwhile top soprano Renee Fleming (below left), who at 50 is in peak form and is very, very busy and is the current darling of the opera and concert world, helped open the New York Philharmonic’s new season Wednesday night when she sang Olivier Messiaen’s “Poemes pour Mi” (anyone else find the work underwhelming?) with the Philharmonic’s new director Alan Gilbert at the opening of his tenure. (You could see it and hear on PBS.)reneefleming

Now I have heard Dame Kiri live when she came to Madison.

I don’t think Fleming has ever appeared here. And with her fee, she probably won’t.

But who is better?

The overwhelming consensus today seems to be Fleming. (For the sake of argument, we’ll leave out Dawn Upshaw, who, I also think, is superb, and Maria Callas, who has never been surpassed for her sense of drama, if not for her  voice.)

But I recall hearing both Fleming and Te Kanana sing two famous Puccini arias: Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” from “Gianni Schicchi and “Vissi d’arte” from “Tosca.”

And I have to say that, in both cases, I liked the quality of Kiri’s voice better.

To my ears, she had less obtrusive vibrato.

Most of all her phrasing seemed simply smoother and more natural.

And her tone was smoother and fuller, rounded with kind of naturalness, pleasant to the ears — the kind of apparently easy or effortless and natural-sounding mastery that tenor Luciano Pavarotti had.

But voice is not my specialty.

So what do real voice fans, opera and art song fanatics, say?

Kiri or Renee?

And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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