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. Mary's 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. Addresses: Agent --Jack Mastrianni, Columbia Artists, 165 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019.
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 Maori--a people of Polynesian descent--ran 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 daughter's bell-like voice. Nell came from a musical family--her great-uncle was English composer Sir Arthur Sullivan--and 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 daugher's 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. Mary's College for Girls. Sister Leo, who had been a professional opera singer before joining a religious order, recognized her young pupil's talent and agreed to lessons twice a week. Unfortunately Kiri proved to be an undisciplined student and was forced to leave St. Mary's 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. Kiri's 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.
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 London's Royal Opera House--also known as Covent Garden--in the role of the Countess Almavira in Mozart's 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 Mozart's Don Giovanni, Micaela in Bizet's Carmen, and Amelia in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. In 1974 she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Desdemona in Verdi's 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 Puccini's La Boheme, Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and Fiordiligi in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte to her repertoire. The following year she appeared as Arabella in Strauss's 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 Elvira in Joseph Losey's 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 family's privacy--she and Desmond adopted a daughter Antonia in 1976 and son Thomas in 1979--and clearly separates her professional life from her personal life.
In the 1980s Te Kanawa's 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.
by Jeanne M. Lesinski
Kiri Te Kanawa's Career
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 Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro , at the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden), London, England, 1970.
Kiri Te Kanawa's 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.
- Selective Works
- Ave Maria Philips.
- Bach: St. Matthew Passion London.
- Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 EMI/Angel.
- Berlioz: Nuits d't 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: Sheherazade; Duparc: Seven Songs , EMI/Angel.
- Recital--Schubert, 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.