The internationally praised operatic soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has achieved a tremendous amount during her long career, which she tirelessly worked to achieve. She rose to popularity with her role at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. She retired from opera in 2010, but is still active in concert settings.
Kiri Te Kanawa was born in the picturesque town of Gisborne on North Island, New Zealand on 6 March 1944. She was born Claire Mary Teresa Rawstron to a native Maori father and a mother of European ancestry, however she was adopted by the local couple Tom and Nell Te Kanawa at just five weeks old. Coincidently, her adoptive father was also a Maori and her mother had British roots. Tom and Nell gave her the name Kiri, which means “bell” in Maori.
Kiri grew up as an only child in the modest family. While her father worked ran a truck contracting business, her mother took care of Kiri at home. Kiri’s childhood was filled with lots of singing and music—her mother was an amateur pianist. In addition, she enjoyed fishing and swimming in the sea.
The family home was without a television, sparking much creativity. They had a small stage at home, allowing Kiri and her mother to perform, though Kiri only performed on her own terms and never on demand. It was Kiri’s mother who first noticed that her voice possessed a special quality, leading her to dream of her daughter’s future singing at London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.
Kiri’s first performances were at school, followed by weddings and funerals. With her earnings, she would pay for her own singing lessons. In 1956, determined to help their daughter reach stardom, Tom and Nell relocated the family to Auckland, New Zealand, where Kiri would have the chance to study with the former opera singer turned nun, Sister Mary Leo, at St. Mary’s College for Girls. While this seemed like a great idea, things did not go so smoothly. Kiri’s singing lessons were quite irregular and caused her to miss her school lessons, leading to poor grades. As a result, she was asked to leave the school within two years.
Finally, in 1970, Kiri Te Kanawa achieved her mother’s dream of performing at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. There, she signed a five-year contract, during which time she sang the roles of Xenia in MussorgskysBoris Godunov, a flower maiden in Wagner’sParsifal and Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Of all these roles, it was her role as Countess Almaviva in December 1971 that shot her to stardom.
In 1974, Te Kanawa left Covent Garden to go to New York to serve as the understudy to soprano Teresa Stratas at the Metropolitan Opera. The events that followed in New York solidified her status as an operatic superstar.
As Te Kanawa recalls, she had just watched a dress rehearsal and had run through the entire staging, to soprano Teresa Stratas at the Metropolitan Opera. The events that followed in New York solidified her status as an operatic superstar.
As Te Kanawa recalls, she had just watched a dress rehearsal and had run through the entire staging, when the next day, as she was out shopping, she received a call that she needed to get to the opera house immediately! Panicked, she hailed a cab, arriving as the curtain was about to rise for the matinee show. The crew put her into costume and makeup in record time, pushing her quickly onto the stage. She remembers that there was no time to be nervous, only “all-out panic”. Despite the stressful circumstances, Te Kanawa was an instant success. She described the experience as being “in a jumbo jet going faster than anybody else in the entire planet on that day.”
Unfettered by the fiasco, Kiri Te Kanawa did what she does best - she persevered. She enrolled in business school and became a receptionist and telephone operator. In the mean time she continued to sing. She chose to work nights in order to sing during the day. She began to compete in vocal competitions, winning the Auckland Competition in 1960.
After her big win in New Zealand, Te Kanawa went on to conquer the voice competitions of Australia and the whole of the South Pacific, winning nearly every prize by 1965. In addition to singing at competitions, she also sang in show choruses and nightclubs.
With a scholarship from the New Zealand government, Te Kanawa set off to London at the age of 21. There, she studied at the London Opera Centre, where she discovered that she was in fact a soprano, not a mezzo-soprano.
Te Kanawa is quite tight-lipped about her personal life, but it is known that she married the Australian engineer Desmond Park in 1967, with whom she adopted two children.
Her studies continued successfully. She became a student of Vera Rozsa, a former opera star from Vienna. Rosza taught her everything she needed to know about opera, not only singing, but also interpretation and stage acting.
She performed at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer (1981) and at Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee. She also gave a concert in Auckland that attracted 140,000 fans.
Her best work has occurred with the works of Mozart, Verdi and Strauss. She is often told that her voice is the perfect match for Mozart. She, herself, finds that the music of Strauss “fits me like a glove, lyrical and passionate at the same time”. In her free time, Te Kanawa prefers to listen to the instrumental music of Wagner.
Te Kanawa’s broad discography includes a live recording of Wagner’s Parsifal (1971) from early on in her career, which was released in 2014 on the Opus Arte label with the Royal Opera House. She can also be heard in Mozart’sCosi van Tuttiwith the same orchestra, under the direction of Colin Davis. Her arias have also been included on various “best-of” compilations.
Recently, Te Kanawa founded her own foundation, which aims to help talented young musicians from New Zealand.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa attributes her great success to her constant search for opportunities, claiming she “never missed a green light” and that she is “sort of crossing to get to the green light all the time. And that’s been my aim in life: to never miss an opportunity”.
Kiri Te Kanawa has received honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and appointed a Dame Commander of the British Empire.