Kiri Te Kanawa

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Kiri Te Kanawa

Operatic soprano

For the Record

Selected discography


Kiri Te Kanawa is an operatic soprano of international stature, particularly known for her artistic interpretations of roles in Mozart and Strauss operas. Te Kanawa radiates enormous confidence in her voice and joy in singing that, along with her beauty, appeal to audiences worldwide.

Born on March 6, 1944, in Grisbane, New Zealand to a mother of European origin and a Maori father, Kiri was adopted at five weeks old by Tom and Nell Te Kanawa. Tom Te Kanawa, a Maoria people of Polynesian descentran a truck contracting business. Little did the Te Kanawas know when they named their daughter Kiri, the Maori word for bell, that someday commentators would be remarking on their daughters bell-like voice. Nell came from a musical familyher great-uncle was English composer Sir Arthur Sullivanand played the piano for gatherings with family and friends. By the time Kiri was eight years old her ability was recognized by a talent scout, who asked to her to sing for a local radio show.

Determined that their daughers talent would not be wasted, in 1956 the Te Kanawas moved to Auckland, Australia, so that Kiri could study with Sister Mary Leo of St. Marys College for Girls. Sister Leo, who had been a professional opera singer before joining a religious order, recognized her young pupils talent and agreed to lessons twice a week. Unfortunately Kiri proved to be an undisciplined student and was forced to leave St. Marys College after only two years due to poor academic performance. She nevertheless privately continued her studies with Leo while completing a business course and working as a receptionist. At this time Kiri also sang from a repetoire of light songs at weddings and clubs.

In 1960 the young singer participated in the Auckland Competition, one of several singing competitions that allowed winners to get some exposure via radio and a recording that might lead to further study abroad. Kiri was chosen as having the most promising voice. Still under the tutelege of Sister Mary Leo, Te Kanawa expanded her range beyond mezzo soprano and in 1965 she placed first in the Mobile Song Quest, sponsored by several Australian newspapers. During this time, Te Kanawa also gathered quite a following at clubs, made a number of popular recordings and appeared in several New Zealand films.

If she were to truly succeed in the world of classical music, Te Kanawa needed more formal training in Europe. In 1966, she entered the London Opera Centre. Kiris first year at the Centre was very difficult for she was lonely and lacked the formal training of most of the students there. But she persevered and in the process learned that her voice truly lay in the soprano range.

For the Record

Born March 6, 1944, in Grisbane, New Zealand; daughter of Thomas (a contractor) and Nell (a homemaker; maiden name Leeces) Te Kanawa; married Desmond Stephen Park (a mining engineer), August 30, 1967; children: Antonia (adopted), Thomas (adopted). Education: Attended St. Marys College for Girls, Auckland, Australia; studied voice at London Opera Centre, London, England, beginning in 1966; studied voice with Vera Rozsa, beginning in 1969. Religion: Roman Catholic.

Winner of voice competitions in New Zealand, 1960, and in Australia, 1965, that led to concert and club bookings, recording contracts (for pop songs), and appearances in several films; made opera debut, as the Countess Almavira in Mozarts The Marriage of Figaro, at the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden), London, England, 1970.

Awards: Winner of Auckland (New Zealand) Competition, 1960; winner of Mobil Song Quest (Australia), 1965; Member of the Order of the British Empire (Civil Division), 1973; named New Zealander of the year, 1973; named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1982.

Addresses: Agent Jack Mastrianni, Columbia Artists, 165 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019.

On August 30, 1967, Kiri married Desmond Park, an Australian mining engineer whom she had met in London. The following year she began to sing some professional roles as well as in student productions at the Opera Centre. In 1969 Te Kanawa began a long and fruitful relationship with voice teacher Vera Rozsa, a former mezzo-soprano at the Vienna State Opera. Kiri credits much of her success to Rozsa, from whom she learned interpretation and acting as well as the technical aspects of singing. In 1970 Te Kanawa made her debut at Londons Royal Opera Housealso known as Covent Gardenin the role of the Countess Almavira in Mozarts The Marriage of Figaro, and was offered a three-year contract as a junior principal at that institution.

The early 1970s proved to be pioneering years for Te Kanawa, who appeared in a variety of roles: Donna Elvira in Mozarts Don Giovanni, Micaela in Bizets Carmen, and Amelia in Verdis Simon Boccanegra. In 1974 she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Desdemona in Verdis Otello. Kiri was asked to appear unexpectedly early when the lead soprano fell ill and canceled only three hours before the performance, which was to be broadcast live nationally. After this performance, Kiri, who was normally positively reviewed by critics, received raves and suddenly became an international star.

Though Te Kanawa has long admitted that she often procrastinates when learning roles, until 1975 she maintained a hectic schedule. She then contracted a serious illness, which taught her the importance of pacing herself. After three months of recuperation, Kiri was back at rehearsals. In 1976 she added Mim in Puccinis La Böhme, Tatyana in Tchaikovshys Eugene Onegin, and Fiordiligi in Mozarts Cos fan tutte to her repertoire. The following year she appeared as Arabella in Strausss opera of the same name, and in the late seventies appeared as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus by Strauss and Violetta in La Traviata by Verdi.

Since early in her career, Te Kanawa has frequently been in the eyes of the media. In 1975 she became the subject of a television profile by the British Broadcasting Corporation, and she has made a number of television appearances: She portrayed Donna Elivra in Joseph Loseys film production of Don Giovanni, and in 1981 she was chosen by Prince Charles of Wales to sing at his marriage to Lady Diana Spencer, which drew a television audience of over 600 million viewers. In reaction to her status as a celebrity, Kiri guards her familys privacyshe and Desmond adopted a daughter Antonia in 1976 and son Thomas in 1979and clearly separates her professional life from her personal life.

In the 1980s Te Kanawas voice and interpretations continued to mature, largely in the repertoire she had already established, and she has made numerous recordings of operatic and popular works. Though Te Kanawa is in high demand worldwide, critics have not reached a consensus on her ability. Though commentators agree that she has a beautiful voice and enthralling stage presence, they have negatively criticized her acting. In 1985 Te Kanawa became dissatisfied with singing opera and took a nine-month sabbatical to perform only concerts and recitals. She returned to the operatic stage the following year but has limited her annual total appearances to between forty-five and fifty in an effort to maintain her voice in peak form and balance her career and private life.

Selected discography

Ave Maria, Philips.

Bach: St. Matthew Passion, London.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, EMI/Angel.

Berlioz: Nuits dt, Deutsche Grammaphon.

Bernstein: West Side Story, DG.

Bizet: Carmen, London.

Blue Skies, London.

Brahms: German Requiem, London.

Canteloube: Songs of Auvergne, Vols. 1 and 2, London.

Christmas with Kiri, London.

Come to the Fair, EMI/Angel.

Durufl: Requiem, CBS.

Gershwin: Songs, Angel.

Gounod: Faust, Philips.

Great Love Scenes, CBS.

Handel: Messiah, London.

Mahler: Symphony No. 2, Philips.

Mahler: Symphony No. 4, London.

Mozart: Arias, Philips.

Mozart: Don Giovanni, CBS.

Mozart: Marriage of Figaro, London.

Puccini Heroines, CBS.

Puccini: La Rondine, CBS.

Puccini: Tosca, London.

Ravel: Shéhérazade; Duparc: Seven Songs, EMI/Angel.

RecitalSchubert, Schumann, Wolf, Faur, Duparc, CBS.

Strauss: Arabella, London.

Strauss: Four Last Songs, CBS.

Verdi and Puccini: Arias, CBS.



Fingleton, David, Kiri: A Biography of Kiri Te Kanawa, Atheneum, 1983.


Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1987.

Grammophon, February 1988.

High Fidelity/Musical America, June 1983.

Opera News, February 1983; December 20, 1986.

Ovation, September 1985.

Variety, April 30, 1986.

Jeanne M. Lesinski

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Kiri Te Kanawa

Lyric soprano Kiri Te Kanawa (born 1944) of New Zealand rose to great popularity because of the warmth and freshness of her voice and her own physical beauty, which lent a striking stage presence.

Kiri Te Kanawa was born in Gisborne, New Zealand, on March 6, 1944, into a family that was too poor to keep her. She was adopted the following month by Tom and Nell Te Kanawa, whose respective Maori and European lineage matched that of her natural parents. (The aboriginal people of New Zealand, the Maori, are a mixture of Polynesian and Melanesian.) Although the family was not especially musical, Nell Te Kanawa encouraged her adopted daughter to sing, and at around the age of six she performed on a local radio broadcast.

In 1956 the family moved to Auckland at the insistence of Mrs. Te Kanawa, so that her daughter could be placed under the tutelage of a respected voice teacher, Sister Mary Leo, at St. Mary's College for Girls. A minimum age requirement—in the end compromised—kept her from enrolling until two years later. She admitted to being lazy in her formative years, and indeed into the beginnings of her professional career, so that she tended toward popular and lighter music, which was easier to sing. At the age of 16 she entered a business school, this practical choice being determined by her rather low academic standing at St. Mary's. Various jobs followed; first as a telephone operator, then a sales person, later an office receptionist.

Meanwhile, she continued her voice lessons with Sister Mary Leo and began singing in popular musicals, such as Annie Get Your Gun and The Sound of Music, and in cabarets. Continued successes in the popular vein, including several recordings, promised at age 16 a career as a popular singer. Such a career, however, did not suit her mother, who again took the reins, persuading those responsible for the Maori Trust Foundation to support Kiri's continued study.

Freed from the necessity of singing for a living, Te Kanawa was able to devote her efforts to more serious music and to enter singing competitions in the area. Her first triumph came as winner of the Auckland Competition in 1960. Two years later she was runner-up in the more prestigious Mobile Song Quest, and in 1965 she won this competition. In the same year she entered aria competitions of both the Sydney and Melbourne Suns, said to be the two most important such events in Australasia. The first awarded her second prize, but her singing of "Leise, leise" (sung in English as "Softly Singing") from Weber's Der Freischützwon her first place in the Melbourne Sun competition.

As a result of the cash prizes and scholarships awarded her by the competition, and also a special fund set up for her by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, she began studying at the London Opera Centre in 1966. A master class with well-known conductor (and husband of Joan Sutherland) Richard Bonynge in 1966 proved beneficial, for he convinced her that she was a soprano and not a mezzo soprano, as everyone had previously assumed. But the transition from renown in her native New Zealand to the anonymity of a student—and by all accounts not a particularly good one—in London proved difficult. Her laziness persisted, and she developed a reputation for being unprepared and unreliable. This reputation followed her for years, even to Covent Garden, where she had to audition as many as nine times before she could convince its judges, not so much of her abilities, but of her sincerity and determination. In March of 1967 she met Desmond Park; her marriage to him in August of the same year had the stabilizing effect on her that made her subsequent career possible.

The period from 1969 to 1970 was a pivotal one in several respects. She left the London Opera Centre and began her new career, at first singing small travesti roles, as in Handel's Alcina at Royal Festival Hall, before her major triumph of 1969 as Ellen in Rossini's La donna del lago at the Camden Festival. Secondly, she began studying with Vera Rozsa, who did much to improve her intonation, diction, interpretation, and acting. Vera Rozsa also corrected the efforts of the singer's earlier teachers who had tried to make her naturally light voice much bigger. Lastly, she auditioned successfully for the Royal Opera House and was given a contract as junior principal for the 1970-1971 season.

Her Covent Garden debut took place in April 1971 as the leading flower maiden in Wagner's Parsifal, an unlikely opera for her, considering the lyrical repertoire she later developed. Although the role was not a large one, she did not go unnoticed; the favorable response led to wider recognition and more important roles. Her American debut was with the Santa Fe Festival in July 1971 as the Countess Almaviva in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. When she repeated the role at Covent Garden in December of the same year the well-known critic of the Financial Times, Andrew Porter, proclaimed her "a new star."

Her debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera, as Desdemona in Verdi's Otello, had been scheduled for March 7, 1974, but took place, again with high acclaim, at a February 9 matinee, when she substituted for the ailing Teresa Stratas on very short notice. Other important debuts included Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Paris Opera in February of 1975 and Desdemona in Verdi's Otello at the Vienna State Opera in October of 1980. She was accorded a special honor in April of 1981, when she was asked by Prince Charles of Wales to sing at his wedding.

Other roles, either staged or recorded, included Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas; the title role in Donizetti's Anna Bolena; Micaela and the title role in Bizet's Carmen; Blanche in Poulenc's Dialogue of the Carmelites; Idamante in Mozart's Idomeneo; Amelia in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra; Marguerite in Gounod's Faust; Mimi in Puccini's La Bohème; Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugène Onegin; Pamina in Mozart's Magic Flute; Fiordiligi in Mozart's Così fan tutte; the title role in R. Strauss' Arabella; Rosalinde in J. Strauss' Die Fledermaus; Marschallin in R. Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier; and Maria in Bernstein's West Side Story. In addition to opera, she also had a non-operatic repertoire that included Brahms' Requiem, Mozart's church music, R. Strauss' Four Last Songs, Mahler's fourth symphony, and Berlioz's Les nuits d'été.

She appeared as Donna Elvira in a commercial film version of Don Giovanni directed by Joseph Losey and released in 1979. Among her many distinctions are honorary doctorates from Dundee, Durham, Auckland, Nottingham and Oxford universities. She was made Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1982.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Te Kanawa released many recordings of both classical and popular music. Her recordings include, Blue Skies (1986); Kiri Sings Gershwin (1987): Italian Opera Arias (1991); Our Christmas Songs For You (1996); and The Ultimate Christmas Album (1996) with Luciano Pavarotti, Leotyne Price and Joan Sutherland. She also authored a children's book, Land of the Long White Cloud in 1989. She was honored in 1990 when she officially opened the Aotea Center, New Zealand's first world-class lyric theater.

Further Reading

Informed criticism of her Marschallin and Violetta by R. Jacobson appears in Opera News (December 24, 1983, and December 18, 1982). A revealing, if somewhat chatty, interview by the same writer appears in the same publication of February 26, 1983. Elizabeth Forbes' biographical sketch, containing some information not found here, is in the British journal Opera (July 1981). Kiri Te Kanawa: A Biography, by David Fingleton (1983) is not a well-written book, grammatically or otherwise. It omits important dates, tends toward the sentimental, and presents much irrelevant information. An objective profile of her can be found in Baker, David J., Totally Cool: The essence of Kiri Te Kanawa in Opera News (October, 1994). □

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Te Kanawa, Dame Kiri

Te Kanawa, Dame Kiri, brilliant New Zealand soprano; b. Gisborne, March 6, 1944. Her father was an indigenous Maori who traced his ancestry to the legendary warrior Te Kanawa; her mother was Irish. She attended Catholic schools in Auckland, and was coached in singing by a nun. She was sent to Melbourne to compete in a radio show; won 1st prize in the Melbourne Sun contest. In 1966 she received a grant for study in London with Vera Rozsa. She made her operatic debut at the Camden Festival in 1969 in Rossini’s La Donna del Lago; first appeared at London’s Covent Garden in a minor role that same year, and then as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro in 1971. She made her U.S. debut in the same role with the Santa Fe Opera in 1971; it became one of her most remarkable interpretations. She sang it again with the San Francisco Opera in 1972. A proverbial coup de théâtre in her career came on Feb. 9, 1974, when she was called upon to substitute at a few hours’ notice for the ailing Teresa Stratas in the part of Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello at the Metropolitan Opera in N.Y.; it was a triumphant achievement, winning for her unanimous praise. She also sang in the film version of Le nozze di Figaro. In 1977 she appeared as Pamina in Die Zauberflöte at the Paris Opéra. On Dec. 31, 1977, she took the role of Rosalinde in a Covent Garden production of Die Fledermaus, which was televised to the U.S. In 1990 she sang Strauss’s Countess at the San Francisco Opera. She was a soloist in the premiere of Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio in 1991. After singing Mozart’s Countess at the Metropolitan Opera in 1992, she returned there in that role in 1997. In 1998 she sang Strauss’s Countess at the Glyndebourne Festival.

Te Kanawa excelled equally as a subtle and artistic interpreter of lyric roles in Mozart’s operas and in dramatic representations of Verdi’s operas. Among her other distinguished roles were the Marschallin and Arabella. She also won renown as a concert artist. In later years she expanded her repertoire to include popular fare, including songs by Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Hailed as a prima donna assoluta, she pursued one of the most successful international operatic and concert careers of her day. In 1981 she sang at the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in London, a performance televised around the globe. In 1973 she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire; in 1982 she was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.


D. Fingleton, K. T.K.(N.Y., 1983).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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Te Kanawa, Dame Kiri (1948– ) New Zealand opera singer of Maori origin. She first attracted attention in the role of the Countess in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House, London (1970). In 1981, Te Kanawa sang at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. She became a dame in 1982.

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Kanawa, Kiri te. See Te Kanawa, (Dame) Kiri.

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Kanawa, Kiri Te See Te Kanawa, Dame Kiri