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.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 14 years ago

'the Te Kanawas moved to Auckland, Australia, so that Kiri could study...' Auckland is in New Zealand. The capital of New Zealand...

about 15 years ago

Having spoken to Kiri several times and having heard her exquisite natural voice (so carefully nurtured by the fantastic pedagogue/friend Dame Mary Leo) I like to address Kiri's lack of attention in recent articles to the love and discipline which this remarkable teacher imposed on her young mind. I had the blessing also to know Sister Leo's kindness over six months. Her insight into human weaknesses was astounding. With fast xray vision she could see into a person's soul. I wish Dame Kiri would pay more laud to this "spiritual" influence she received in younger years as it is for most great artists the fountain of all creative energies.

about 16 years ago

I remember watching Kiri on TV, sing and win the Mobile Talent Contest in 1960, in Auckland, New Zealand (Auckland's not in Australia). I was in my late teens, she was 26 yrs old, and her singing was, average then. Still, my family was proud of her and continued to be throughout her career, when we got news snippets of her accomplishments. Dame Kiri singing "O mio babbino caro" is the best I've heard her sing yet. She mastered the 'trill' whereas other opera singers have not. My favorite tho, is Anna T. However, I was very disappointed to hear of Dame Kiri's unjustified and hurtful criticisms of young Hayley Westernrah recently. All great singers have their start somewhere. I can't believe that Kiri now elevates herself so high up, with the snobs of the London set. Pride becomes before a fall. Hayley Westernrah was mature enough not to comment on Kiri's public insults. Young people should be encouraged and supported, not shot down in jealousy. Hayley sings with a purity of voice and spirit. She has such a beautiful voice of an angel. She has many years ahead to progress and find her true self. God bless and the best of luck to Westernrah.

over 16 years ago

This certainly needs updating! also she was born in Gisborne, New Zealand, not 'Grisbane'. Moher's maiden name was Leece, not Leeces and she was not related to Sir Arthur Sullivan, it has been proved. Most of this just comes faithfully out of Fingleton's book.

over 16 years ago

Kiri is one of the beloved opera singers of all time. These comments imply that she was done practically nothing since 1980. The article also questions her abilty. Most people would say that she is "not too bad at all".

over 16 years ago

I have only recently come to appreciate opera, being a rockchild of the 60's. But when I saw the videoclip of Dame Kiri singing "O mio babbino caro" on Youtube, I became a complete fan. What a perfect voice!! I am in awe!! Linley Worrall