By Laura Thompson
7:30AM BST 02 Oct 2013
Downton Abbey is starting to resemble the heyday of The Morecambe and Wise Show. Stars queue up to be in it. Just as Glenda Jackson and Andre Previn seized the chance to cavort with Eric and Ernie, so a Hollywood name like Shirley Maclaine happily trades quips among the teacups with the Granthams. Now we are about to see one of the greatest opera sopranos of the past 40 years, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, in the role of Australian singer Nellie Melba, singing at a Downton soirée (and raising the incidental question of how the cash-strapped Earl could afford Melba’s famously enormous fees).
This is a particularly splendid feather in Downton Abbey’s cap. What is extraordinary, however, is that the legendary Dame Kiri is quite sincerely ecstatic to be part of the programme. Like 120 million others around the world, the New Zealand-born goddess of the opera house is a bona fide fan.
“I nearly choked when I saw the email that invited me,” she says, before describing how, during a stay in New York, she downloaded the previous series then watched it every night in her hotel room. “I rationed myself to an episode at a time. Once I did watch three at a sitting. They’re like chocolates. You try and just have one…”
Kiri Te Kanawa in Downton Abbey’s drawing room
We are talking in a suite at the Mayfair Hotel. Smart as paint in her black trousers and red high-collared jacket, Dame Kiri has the courteous, smiling regality of a true star, but also a down-to-earth Antipodean warmth. The writer and critic Bernard Levin, who was so besotted with her that he proclaimed “When I die they will find ‘Kiri’ written on my heart”, also said, more judiciously, that she “carries such conviction because [her performance] comes from a nature in which there is no falseness, no dissembling”. I have only seen her sing on film, in Joseph Losey’s marvellous 1979 Don Giovanni, and on television at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, but it is easy to recognise the truth of Levin’s perception.