Kiri Te Kanawa, Biography
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (New Zealand, born 6 March 1944) was one of the leading operatic sopranos internationally in the 1970s and 1980s. The sheer beauty of her unique warm full lyric soprano voice has been described as having a platinum tone and regal aura. Now, she only rarely sings in operas. However, she still performs in concerts and recitals, gives master-classes and runs her foundation to support young opera singers in launching their careers.
Childhood and Youth
Kiri Te Kanawa's natural parents were of Maori and European origin. At five weeks of age, she was adopted by Thomas and Nell Te Kanawa, who were like her natural parents Maori and with British family ties. The adoptive parents named her Kiri which is the Maori word for bell. She remained their single child. Looking back, Kiri Te Kanawa said that the early knowledge of her adoption made her ambitious to excel in life.
They lived in a small town in New Zealand where her adoptive father ran a truck contracting business and her adoptive mother stayed at home with her. Although the family had no television and music and singing was their primary entertainment with the mother playing piano, Kiri Te Kanawa sang only when she really felt like it. Her first performance was at the local school, then at weddings and funerals. Her mother was totally convinced of the beauty of Kiri's voice and that she would sing at London's Royal Opera House Covent Garden one day.
To support this idea, the family moved to Auckland when Kiri was 12 years old so that she could study with the former opera singer Sister Mary Leo. In her teens and early 20s, Kiri became a pop star and popular entertainer at clubs and regularly appeared in news papers and magazines. After finishing school education, she took a job as a receptionist and then as a telephone operator so that she could work at night and continue practicing singing during daytime.
In 1963, at 19 years, Kiri Te Kanawa was runner-up in the Mobil Song Quest. In 1965, she won the same competition with her performance of "Vissi d'arte" from Puccini's Tosca. As the winner, she received a grant to study in London. One year later, she won the prestigious Australian Melbourne Sun-Aria contest.
Also in 1966, she enrolled at the London Opera Centre to seriously study under Vera Rozsa and James Robertson, who supposedly said that Kiri Te Kanawa lacked a singing technique when she arrived but did have a gift for captivating audiences. It was Australian conductor Richard Bongynge who told Kiri during a class to better shift from mezzo soprano to soprano singer. In 1967, former Vienna opera star Vera Rozsa became Kiri's singing coach. Rozsa systematically schooled her in interpretation and stage acting as well as in the technical aspects of operatic singing.
In 1969, the conductor Collin Davis, who became the principal director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1970, heard Kiri Te Kanawa during an audition. He said he couldn't believe his ears: He had taken thousands of auditions but Kiri's was such a fantastically beautiful voice. Consequently, by 1970, Kiri Te Kanawa was able to fulfill her mother's dream in making her debut at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. She sang the roles of Xenia in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunow and the flower maiden in Wagner's Parsifal. The performance that followed in 1971 began her stratospheric rise and her international career: The Countess Almaviva in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Kiri Te Kanawa's mother died shortly after.
Kiri Te Kanawa became especially known for singing a wide range of works in multiple languages from the 17th to the 20th centuries, particularly often portraying princesses, noble countesses and other similar characters. She was singing these roles with the sheer beauty of her full lyric soprano voice that has been described as mellow yet vibrant, ample and unforced with freshness and warmth. Critics describe her voice as having a platinum tone and regal aura. Her naturally dignified stage presence and physical beauty complement these roles.
Special Performances and Honors
Kiri Te Kanawa played Donna Elvira in Joseph Losey's 1979 wonderful film adaption of Don Giovanni. She was seen and heard around the world by an estimated 600 million people when she sang Handel's "Let the Bright Seraphim" at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di in 1981.
In the Queen's Birthday Honors in 1982, Kiri Te Kanawa was appointed "Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire" for services to the opera. In 1984, Leonard Bernstein decided to re-record the musical West Side Story, conducting his own music for the first time. Generally known as the "operatic version", it starred Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria and Jose Carreras as Tony. It won a Grammy Award for Best Cast Show Album in 1985 and the recording process was filmed as a documentary.
A concert she gave in Auckland attracted a record-breaking 140,000 fans, and she sang the first song of the new millennium in Gisborne, to a global audience in over 80 countries of some one billion.
Kiri Te Kanawa met the Australian Engineer Desmond Park on a blind date in London in August 1967 and they married six weeks later at St Patrick's Cathedral, Auckland. They adopted two children, Antonia (born 1976) and Thomas (born 1979). They divorced in 1997.
An early riser, Kiri Te Kanawa never enjoyed late-night post-performance parties or suppers, preferring instead to return home and go to bed. There also remains in her a wistful sadness about the high price of a career that required her to live out of suitcases for months on end. She deeply experiences and often describes the silence of loneliness after leaving the stage after being cheered: Then you go back to the hotel and all the flowers are dying. And it's very lonely in the hotel room. There's nothing there.
Kiri Te Kanawa had never made any attempt to contact her natural parents, but by the end of the 1990s, her half-brother Jim Rawstron contacted her. Initially, she was not willing to meet him but later agreed to. This episode ended in bitterness, and she has since reaffirmed her decision to have nothing to do with her birth family.