Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: ‘I couldn’t say yes to Downton fast enough!’

World famous opera star Dame Kiri Te Kanawa will be playing legendary real-life singer Dame Nellie Melba in this Sunday’s episode of Downton Abbey. We spoke to her about making the Downton cast cry…

How did you hear that Julian Fellowes wanted you to play the part of Dame Nellie Melba?
“An email came through asking if it would be something I’d be interested in discussing and I was so excited! Downton is my favourite programme in the whole world, I couldn’t believe they’d asked me! I met with Julian and the producers and they asked me if I wanted to do it. I nearly choked! I couldn’t say ‘yes’ fast enough!”

Did you research Dame Nellie much for the role?
“I had someone in New Zealand who knew quite a lot about her and I got a lot of info from the Metropolitan Opera. I’ve always been very interested in her anyway because she’s such a legend. I have a log-sheet of all the performances she made in the 1890s, through to the 1920s, and you can see she performed almost every second evening for years. Her wage for one year would have been about £3m in today’s money!”

How did you choose which songs to sing?
Apparently Songs My Mother Taught Me was one of her very favourite songs and luckily we have a copy of her singing it, which we’ve tried to reproduce as faithfully as possible. Julian wanted to stay true to the character because apparently she’s the only true character that actually lived who’s been on the show.”

Would you like to do more acting in the future?
“I’m not sure I was acting! It was just a really special experience to be on set with such a talented group of actors and crew!”

We hear you brought your dogs with you?
“Yes I brought my two dogs along, but Lord Carnarvon (the owner of Highclere Estate) didn’t want them anywhere near the castle so they had to stay at my hotel. When filming was taking place we were expecting doggy number three and when she arrived we named her Abbey! She’s my little Downton prize.”

How did you feel walking on set?
I couldn’t sleep the night before because I was very excited, but luckily it was an early start. It was a long day, but I made it longer by staying up most of the night! My first line was terrible and Hugh Bonneville (who plays Lord Grantham) looked at me in wonderment. It was almost as if he was thinking ‘This could take a while!’ But the second time was much better. It was the most exciting and frightening thing to do, because you’re with people who are very comfortable doing it!”


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