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.
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). □