By Michael Roddy
LONDON (Reuters) - The stage was strewn with daffodils and a cake was wheeled out as Dame Kiri te Kanawa celebrated her 70th birthday on Thursday singing on stage at Covent Garden where the New Zealand-born soprano first made an international splash more than 40 years ago.
Te Kanawa, who retired from the opera stage in 2004 but still sings recitals, was misty eyed after video tributes from famous singers she has worked with, including Frederica von Stade, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo, were shown on a screen at the end of a production of Donizetti's comic opera "La Fille du Regiment."
"After this day... I'm going to do a runner, and there's no more birthdays," Te Kanawa said to laughter from the sold-out opera audience.
"I thank this whole cast for the most wonderful performance and I'm so pleased that I was able to do five minutes of this," Te Kanawa, who played what is usually the non-singing role of the Duchess of Crackentorp in the production.
A special aria, lifted from Puccini's opera "Edgar", was inserted for Te Kanawa to sing, giving the audience a glimpse of her famous creamy high notes.
"I thank you all so much and keep up the spirit and the love of classical music," Te Kanawa said after the audience had sung "Happy Birthday to her.
Domingo, with whom Te Kanawa sang in a fabled production of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut", in his video tribute welcomed her into her 70s where he noted he had preceded her by three years.
"It's a wonderful world...it's so beautiful," the Spanish tenor said before launching into "Happy Birthday" to Kiri.
Te Kanawa, who is of half-Maori descent and made her reputation singing countesses and duchesses in Mozart and Strauss operas, told Reuters in an interview before the performance that she was thrilled to be celebrating her birthday at Covent Garden.
She had her first big international success at Covent Garden singing the role of Countess Almaviva in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" in 1971.
"It is really my home house, I did everything from here, wrong or right, right or wrong, but I had some wonderful experiences at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and made some wonderful old friends," she said.
She attributed the quality of her voice to having been gentle with it during nearly 40 years on the opera stage.
"I suppose I'm really quite surprised that my voice is in such good shape but I never really did it a lot of damage, I didn't do the wrong things," she told Reuters in a backstage interview before the performance.
"Sometimes I overworked and of course you pay the price but my voice is still good, the high notes are still there - maybe not as high as it used to be but still at age 70 I'm not quite sure who sings top D's anyway," she said, referring to a note at the top end of the soprano range.
Although opera and music audiences know her from the stage and recordings, including singing the role of Maria in a famous "operatic" recording of Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story", television viewers saw her more recently as soprano Dame Nellie Melba in an episode of the popular British serial "Downton Abbey" which Te Kanawa said was "a wonderful experience".
She said she Had particularly enjoyed meeting all the cast and getting "lots and lots of pictures", but also got a kick out of knowing how the show ended months ahead of time.
"We just said it was going to be dramatic and that's all we would say - we didn't want to tell anyone about what was going on in the script," she said.
(Editing by Clive McKeef)