In April 1944 a social worker came to the house of Tom and Nell Te Kanawa, who had placed themselves on an adoption list, with a five-week old baby girl. They turned the baby down. Later the social worker returned with the same baby and the wife said, “Look at that poor little girl—she’s got no home. Poor kid, no one’s adopted her yet.” And so they did and gave her the Maori name Kiri.
Kiri never knew her real parents. It is only known that her father was Maori and her mother European, the same as her new parents. As a small child, she had a wonderful voice, and when only seven sang on a local radio station in Gisborne, New Zealand where they lived.
Kiri continued to excel at singing and her mother, Nell, heard that St. Mary’s College in Auckland had a wonderful music teacher, Sister Mary Leo, whose students won all the New Zealand music awards. Nell wanted Kiri to go to that school.
She called Sister Mary Leo. “I have a daughter who sings very well—will you take her on?”
Not until she is eighteen was the reply (Kiri was only twelve). So her father quit his job, and the family packed up and moved to Auckland in the hope that Sister Mary Leo would change her mind.
Two years later, Kiri was accepted at St. Mary’s College and began taking music lessons with Sister Mary Leo. The rest is—as they say—history. This young New Zealand singer was Kiri Te Kanawa, who was to become one of the most famed and beloved opera sopranos of all time.
After working with Sister Mary Leo, she won numerous competitions throughout New Zealand and Australia. She progressed in her craft until New Zealand became too small for her. Similar to the previous situation, this time it was Sister Leo who contacted the famed London Opera Center. Could Kiri study there? Yes, she was accepted in 1966 without audition, something that was unheard of.
At the opera school, it was said that she lacked a singing technique but had a way of captivating audiences. She continued to improve, working with numerous demanding teachers who helped her perfect her craft. In 1969 when she auditioned for the role of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, the conductor, Colin Davis, said, “I couldn’t believe my ears. I’ve taken thousands of auditions, but it was such a fantastically beautiful voice.”
In 1971 after playing in The Marriage of Figaro in both Santa Fe and at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, she became a legend almost overnight and grew to become one of the most celebrated opera singers worldwide in the 1970s and 1980s.
Kiri herself tells the story of mother repeatedly saying to her when she was young, “Darling, I can see you at Convent Gardens. I can see you up there.” It didn’t seem to matter that the location of the famed London Royal Opera House her mother was referring to was actually Covent Garden—in any case, her mother turned out to be right.
Throughout her career, Kiri Te Kanawa excelled with the works of Mozart, Strauss, Handel and Puccini, and at portraying princesses, noble countesses and other similar dignified roles, her voice being complemented by her physical beauty and stage presence.
What is her singing like? She has been described as radiating the sheer joy of singing, and as having a warm and lyric voice. “Mellow yet vibrant, warm, ample and unforced” (Chicago Tribune 2001). She is also famous for her magic of connecting with the audience.
In 1981 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 Diana Spencer.
She now spends at least some of her time coaching and mentoring up-and-coming opera stars. Despite her international fame and travel, she always takes time to return to New Zealand. “I am always a New Zealander,” she says.
Her legacy remains unquestionable—Kiri Te Kanawa is considered one of the top ten sopranos of all time.
Similar to so many other fields, it is often difficult for the unsophisticated to judge what is truly difficult or challenging for a professional in a given field. For many people, all opera sounds alike. On an interview in 2010, Kiri Te Kanawa said she felt particularly proud of her performances in Strauss’ works: “Capriccio”, “Arabella” and “Der Rosenkavalier.”
Finally, here is a Youtube video of Kiri Te Kanawa singing Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro.”
Harris, N. (1966). Kiri—Music and a Maori Girl. Wellington, New Zealand: A.H.& A.W. Reed.
Fingleton, D. (1982). Kiri Te Kanawa A biography. London, England: Collins.