If Dame Kiri Te Kanawa hadn’t turned out famous straight away, would she have a legit beef with her whānau and their irritating and regular attempts to throw shade on her artistic pursuits? Because it’s getting a little bit tired.
Would whānau mistakenly interpret Kiri’s artistic temperament and inability to suppress it, and take offence? Would they put Kiri in the too-hard basket, the too-hard kete, the kete for tāngata with sticks up their arses? If Kiri was just Kiri and not Dame Kiri, would whānau draw daggers and mock her precisely rounded vowels behind her plutey back, knowing anyone would die for just one look inside her plutey wardrobe?
Would hapū, eavesdropping on her vocal warm-ups in the wharepaku, stop for a moment and roll their eyes? Would they pick up their tea towels and with bitterness in their hearts get back to the clean-up? Or would cousin Mere have something to say about it? Imagine her thinking It’s no big deal to barge in on Kiri’s warm-up. To look into Kiri’s stage-painted face, look her right in the stage-painted eye and say, “Isn’t it your turn on the tea towel, cuz?”
It doesn’t stop there. What about the time Mere heard Kiri joke, “I whakapapa to Mozart”? How Mere mimicked Kiri’s plutey accent and went, “I whakapapa to The Beatles”, knowing that Kiri, with her infamous ear for music, was well within hearing range. All that happened, Kiri being Kiri, she smiled her little smile and pressed play on her reel-to-reel tape machine whereby orchestral practice music ensued. Kiri’s vocal gymnastics, her playful rendition of “Una voce poco fa”, somersaulted left and lodged directly into Mere’s nono where it became an eternal source of pain.
What if Mere wandered past the Te Kanawa whare, knowing they were holidaying down south for the week, and let herself in? It’s no big secret that the key is situated under the pot of crimson hydrangea and any fool can unlock a door. So what if that fool was Mere? Would anyone care if she stole into the hallway and crept along the Persian carpet runner? Who’s going to stop her standing in Kiri’s bedroom for as long as she likes? Who wouldn’t ogle Kiri’s four-poster draped in rose-coloured velvet? Who wouldn’t gape at the beige damask wallpaper, at the frame of lightbulbs edging Kiri’s vanity mirror, at the low-slung chaise beneath the bay window?
While she’s at it, why not suck down a lung full of air and pull up her diaphragm, up and up and up? She knows as well as anybody, It’s only a matter of relaxing the throat. What if she lets the bell-like vibrato that resonates off Kiri’s fricking vocal cords, resonate off her own vocal cords? No one’s going to hear if she lets rip with an attempt, say, at A5, the highest A of the soprano’s vocal range. But what if you caught a bullfrog and squeezed it hard, but not so hard that you munted it, only hard enough to make its protest a strangled croak? Is that the sound Mere makes? Which is to say, not even remotely bell-like. Not even gong-like.
Well, so what? Mere doesn’t care about her own vocal limitations. She came to see the dresses. From the outside, Kiri’s wardrobe is hardly any different to hers. The small, white door in the distant corner of the room has a globular jewel knob. Inside Mere’s wardrobe, a forest green coat hangs limp alongside a charcoal-coloured dress she only wears on Sundays, but the inside of Kiri’s wardrobe tells a different story. With the door flung wide, dresses bloated with yards of fabric leap at Mere through the narrow gap of the jamb. Their shiny fabrics are noisy, murmuring and gossiping, even before she touches them. Taffeta? Organza? Lace everywhere stiffened with gold thread. Ugh, and crinolines. The impatient rustling when she wedges the dresses apart, a fat vein pulsing in her ugly throat. With frantic haste, she stuffs the apparel back into the wardrobe’s cavity. Then, she flees, the legs of her faded bell-bottoms flapping around her ankles.
If Kiri hadn’t turned out famous so soon, would she take her role as Teacher of Music at the local college very, very seriously? Would she waste no time getting herself some cool wheels? Imagine her pimped ride: a two-tone Tudor-Red-and-Ivory VDub. Why, the best place for that car is next to the Principal’s fiery Holden Torana. Not to mention that her assigned parking space is too close to the road and doesn’t have the same outlook of Rangitoto. Not to mention that proximity to the Principal’s car park shortens her procession to the music department. This means taking the DP’s space, but she doesn’t mind. No one will be surprised that car parking arrangements can be confusing for artistic types.
Having parked beside the Principal’s Torana, does she then promenade across the concourse con eleganza? Does she glide along dark music department corridors en route to her classroom, her Music Chamber, brightening everybody’s day somewhat? Are her classroom walls papered with posters from The Marriage of Figaro, La Bohème, The Barber of Seville? Does she quiet her young charges, her kleine Kinder, and call the roll in perfect pitch? Will the tutorial on vocal technique be a complete bust when she becomes entirely carried away during a vocal demonstration, losing herself to an impromptu performance of Donna Elvira from the stage production of Don Giovanni? And will she one day be Dame Sister Mary Leo to some other ill-begotten Māori girl who was a disappointment academically but mesmerising during stage performances?
When the DP arrives and sees Kiri’s Tudor-Red-and-Ivory VDub parked in his space, does an image come to mind of Kiri’s fully made-up wahine face and the string of pearls suspended above her décolletage? What if his mind’s eye dips to the dusky flesh below the pearls? Are his thoughts soon enlivened by jump cuts to trains entering tunnels, trains ejecting jaunty plumes of steam and rockets launching into space? Does he then jerk his early model Mitsubishi Pajero into reverse and park one over in the AP’s designated car park?
What about Mere? When she arrives not long after, in her battered Ford Cortina, does she observe Kiri’s Vdub parked in the DP’s carpark, and the DP parked in the AP’s carpark, and just know that the AP will be parked in her space? Will she still be grateful that Kiri encouraged her to apply for the role of Library Assistant in the school library? Will she appreciate, at that moment, how Kiri’s irresistible charm guaranteed her employment? Will Mere recall her pointless little life before assisting in the library, those bleak mornings and her lack of impetus to leave the bedroom? Or will she roll her eyes and tut, then pop the clutch and swerve the battered Cortina all the way round to Kiri’s parking space?
Sooner or later, everybody grows up. The irony won’t be lost on Mere, how these days she listens to her cousin on a voluntary basis. The recording Kiri sent her from New York, the soundtrack of West Side Story, it’s one of the few drugless ways she finds sleep. Every so often before the sonics of “I Feel Pretty” delivers her to slumber, Dame Kiri’s voice spikes her imagination. In the theatre of Mere’s pre-dream, a feverish Leonard Bernstein, wearing a tomato-red long-sleeve knit, weaves the air with his conductor’s baton. She feels the waiata in her body, the words she knows by heart. Magical kupu, It’s as close to artistic transcendence as she will ever get. There is a saying: ka rongo te pō, ka rongo te ao and the rhythm of Mere’s life has always been off. Tempo, as the Maestro might say, it’s all about tempo.
Unless it’s all about the intent of the lyrics. In “I Feel Pretty” many a night Dame Kiri can be heard singing props to herself, including the suggestion to form a committee in her honour. Really? How has that played into the divergence of the two cousins’ paths? Or is it the other way round? Did that particular waiata find Dame Kiri because of an affinity to the much-loved Maria? This begs the question, is our endpoint in life inevitable?
With or without Dame Sister Mary Leo, would Kiri still become our Dame Kiri? Late in life, would she still depart from a church service in the back seat of a burgundy Rolls Royce? Would she still wear a camel-coloured coat and cover her impeccably frosted hair with a camel-coloured hat featuring an oversized bow, or might she have chosen a different outfit that day? Would she still be seated next to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II no matter how events transpired? In her life’s final quarter, would it still be like, just another thing the Dame did with the Queen? And during the ride would it come to mind – either Dame Kiri’s or Queen Elizabeth’s – the particular episode of The Crown with its oblique references to an “opera singer”?
Taken with kind permission from the new collection Hiwa: Contemporary Māori Short Stories, edited by Paula Morris, consulting editor Darryn Joseph (Auckland University Press, $45), available in bookstores nationwide. This is the third story from the anthology to appear in ReadingRoom these past three weeks, following “Work and Income Gothic” byJack Remiel Cottrell, and “Isn’t It” by Paula Morris.
Next week: a new, perhaps unusual series of five stories. Five writers have been commissioned to imagine a political party candidate on the election trail. The series begins with Kirsten McDougall imagining a gracious lady from ACT.