Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

Kiri Te Kanawa was born in New Zealand with European and Maori heritage, and first sang in public when she was six years old, on Gisborne’s radio station.

By the time she was 20 she had won the major vocal prizes available in the South Pacific, and – unusually early for a prima donna in any era – had also started her recording career, and was awarded New Zealand’s first Gold Disc for sales.

In 1965 she moved to London to study at the London Opera Centre. After first appearing in Carmen in New Zealand, and Otello in Britain, the young Te Kanawa was marked for Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, first at Santa Fe, USA, then at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1971.

Her sensational London debut in Figaro gained Kiri Te Kanawa legendary status almost overnight and rapidly moved her into the front rank of international opera. She became one of the most famous sopranos in the world, a familiar figure in leading opera houses - including Covent Garden, the Metropolitan, Chicago Lyric Opera, Paris Opera, Sydney Opera House, Vienna State Opera, La Scala Milan, San Francisco, Munich, and Cologne.

Her operatic repertoire included eighteen leading roles, including Mozart's Fiordiligi, Donna Elvira, Pamina, and Countess Almaviva; Verdi's Violetta, Amelia Boccanegra, and Desdemona; Richard Strauss’s Arabella, The Marschallin, and the ‘Capriccio’ Countess ; Puccini's Tosca, Mimi and Manon Lescaut; Johann Strauss's Rosalinde ; Tchaikovsky's Tatiana ; Bizet's Micaela ; Gounod's Marguerite; and Barber’s Vanessa.

On the concert stage, her natural serenity and vocal beauty have joined with the world’s major orchestral ensembles - Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, London Symphony and the Boston Symphony under the baton of such conductors as Claudio Abbado, Sir Colin Davis, Charles Dutoit, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa and Sir Georg Solti.

She has appeared at venues as diverse as Glyndebourne, Tanglewood, Ravinia, the Verona Arena, the Hollywood Bowl, the festivals of Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg, and with full orchestra in the desert outback of Australia.

Dame Kiri’s recordings include sixteen full operas, plus oratorios, song cycles, lieder, and three recordings of all-Maori music. She also joined Nelson Riddle for Blue Skies, an album of American popular songs; entered the popular charts with her recording of a Rugby World Cup theme song The World in Union ; followed by albums of Gershwin, Porter and Kern songs and three classics of the light music stage: My Fair Lady, South Pacific, and Leonard Bernstein's only recording of West Side Story.

As a soloist at the wedding of HRH Prince Charles in St Paul's Cathedral, she faced one of the largest direct telecast audience of any solo singer in history (estimated to be over 600 million people). 1990 saw another record when, during a tour of Australia and New Zealand, her outdoor concert in the city of Auckland attracted a crowd of 140,000.

Created a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1982, Kiri Te Kanawa has been conferred with honorary degrees from eleven Universities including Oxford and Cambridge, and is an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music.

The investment of Australia’s highest honour - the Order of Australia - came in 1990, and New Zealand’s highest honour - the Order of New Zealand - in 1995.

To mark the transfer into the new millennium, Dame Kiri sang from the first place in the world to see the sun rise on the year 2000 - the coastline of her home town Gisborne -– in a live telecast to over 80 countries. Then, aware that her own experience could be of value to younger singers, the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation was launched in 2004, giving support and financial assistance to dedicated New Zealand singers and musicians.

The International Achievement Summit Award was presented to Dame Kiri by the equally famous Dame Julie Andrews, and Kiri was then inducted into the Hollywood Bowl of Fame. In 2010 she was presented with the British Recording Industry’s ‘Lifetime Achievement ’ award. That same year, came her decision that her 2010 season singing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier would be her final appearance in a major leading role.

But this did not leave the following years idle. She was named ‘Iconic New Zealander of the Year’ in 2012 and a year later recorded her third all-Maori recording – thus joining the elite list of artists who had been recording for 50 years. 

Although the Marschallin was her last leading operatic role, she has been invited by major opera houses to appear in the brief character-comedy role of The Duchess of Krakenthorpe, in Daughter of the Regiment, and has appeared in that role in London, New York and Vienna. Then came the invitation to play Dame Nellie Melba in “Downton Abbey.”

In 2015 Dame Kiri sailed to Turkey to be at the Anzac centennial in Gallipoli, and in Anzac Cove
she presented a memorial wreath on behalf of New Zealand. She continued to maintain a schedule of concert appearances throughout the world, with performances in China, USA, United Kingdom, Australia, Korea, Canada, Brazil, Sweden, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and, Norway – until she retired from the concert stage (her last concert was in Ballarat in October 2016).Her current passion is the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation, which she founded in 2004 to help support promising young New Zealanders singers. The Foundation provides them with mentoring, coaching, and some financial support.

In 2018 Dame Kiri was appointed a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in the Queens Birthday Honours for services to music.