Dame Kiri Te Kanawa
Te Kanawa in 2013
Claire Mary Teresa Rawstron

(1944-03-06) 6 March 1944 (age 80)
Gisborne, New Zealand
OccupationOpera singer (soprano)
Years active1968–2017
Desmond Park
(m. 1967; div. 1997)

Dame Kiri Jeanette Claire Te Kanawa,[1] ONZ, CH, DBE, AC (/ˈkɪri təˈkɑːnəwə/;[2] born Claire Mary Teresa Rawstron, 6 March 1944) is a New Zealand opera singer. She had a full lyric soprano voice, which has been described as "mellow yet vibrant, warm, ample and unforced".[3] On 1 December 1971 she was recognised internationally when she appeared as the Countess in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House in London.

Te Kanawa received accolades in many countries,[4][5] performing works composed in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and singing in several languages. She was particularly associated with the music of Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini and Richard Strauss, and was often cast as an aristocrat.[6] Her extensive discography includes three albums which featured in the top forty in charts in Australia in the mid-1980s.[7]

Towards the end of her career, Te Kanawa appeared in opera only rarely, preferring to perform in concerts and recitals. She also devoted much of her time to giving masterclasses and supporting young opera singers through the period of their apprenticeship.[8]

Personal life

Te Kanawa (right), c. 1960s

Te Kanawa was born Claire Mary Teresa Rawstron in Gisborne, New Zealand, to Māori butcher Tieki "Jack" Wawatai and to Mary Noeleen Rawstron, who was the daughter of Irish immigrants.[9] Wawatai was already married to Apo, the daughter of the Rev. Poihipi Kōhere.[10][11] Rawstron's mother insisted the baby be given up for adoption.[12][13][9][14] Te Kanawa was adopted as an infant by Thomas Te Kanawa, the owner of a successful trucking business, and his wife Nell. Kiri Te Kanawa's adoptive family is Ngāti Maniapoto.[15]

She was educated at St Mary's College, Auckland, and formally trained in operatic singing by Sister Mary Leo Niccol. Te Kanawa began her singing career as a mezzo-soprano but developed into a soprano.[16] Her recording of the "Nuns' Chorus" from the Benatzky's operetta Casanova was the first gold record produced in New Zealand.

Te Kanawa met Desmond Park on a blind date in London in August 1967, and they married six weeks later at St Patrick's Cathedral, Auckland.[17] They adopted two children, Antonia (born 1976) and Thomas (born 1979). The couple divorced in 1997.[18] Te Kanawa never made an attempt to contact her biological parents, but her half-brother Jim Rawstron contacted her. Initially, she was unwilling to meet him, but agreed to do so in 1997. The episode ended bitterly, when a newspaper ran a story on their meeting; despite Rawstron denying contact with the newspaper,[19] Te Kanawa has since reaffirmed her decision to have nothing to do with her birth family.[20]


In her teens and early 20s, Te Kanawa was a pop star and entertainer at clubs in New Zealand,[21][failed verification] and regularly appeared in newspapers and magazines. In 1963, she was runner-up to Malvina Major in the Mobil Song Quest with her performance of "Vissi d'arte" from Puccini's Tosca, and in 1965 she won the same competition. As winner, she received a grant to study in London.[22]

She appeared and sang in the 1966 musical comedy film Don't Let It Get You. In 1966, she won the Melbourne Sun-Aria contest, which Major had won the previous year. Both singers had been taught by Sister Mary Leo.

Early years in London

In 1966, without an audition, she enrolled at the London Opera Centre to study under Vera Rózsa and James Robertson, who reputedly said Te Kanawa lacked a singing technique when she arrived at the school but had a gift for captivating audiences.[12] She first appeared on stage as the Second Lady in Mozart's The Magic Flute. On a recommendation by Richard Bonynge, she changed to soprano training in 1967.[22] When she performed the title role of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in a concert performance that year, music critic Alan Blyth predicted that she was to be the "opera star of the next decade".[22] in December 1968 she repeated the role at the Sadler's Wells Theatre.

She also performed the title role in Donizetti's Anna Bolena. In 1969, she appeared as Elena in Rossini's La donna del lago at the Camden Festival. Praise for her Idamante in Mozart's Idomeneo led to an offer of a three-year contract as junior principal at the Royal Opera House, where she made her debut as Xenia in Boris Godunov and a Flower Maiden in Wagner's Parsifal in 1970.[23] She was offered the role of the Countess in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro[22] after an audition of which 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."[24] Under director John Copley, Te Kanawa was carefully groomed for the role for a December 1971 opening.

International career

Meanwhile, word of her success had reached John Crosby at the Santa Fe Opera, a summer opera festival in New Mexico then about to begin its 15th season. He cast her as the Countess in Figaro, which opened on 30 July 1971. The production also featured Frederica von Stade's first appearance in what was to become her signature role, Cherubino. According to a historian of the Santa Fe company, "It was two of the newcomers who left the audience dazzled: Frederica von Stade as Cherubino and Te Kanawa as the Countess. Everyone knew at once that these were brilliant finds. History has confirmed that first impression."[25]

On 1 December 1971 at Covent Garden, Te Kanawa repeated her Santa Fe performance and created an international sensation as the Countess: "with 'Porgi amor' Kiri knocked the place flat."[26] This was followed by performances as the Countess at the Opéra National de Lyon and San Francisco Opera in 1972. She first sang Desdemona in Otello in Glasgow in 1972, while her 1974 Metropolitan Opera (Met) début as Desdemona took place at short notice: she replaced an ill Teresa Stratas at the last minute, and performed alongside Jon Vickers in the title role.[22] Te Kanawa sang at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1973, with further débuts in Paris and (1975), Sydney (1976), Milan (1978), Salzburg (1979), and Vienna (1980). In 1982, she gave her only stage performances as Tosca in Paris. In 1989, she added Elisabeth de Valois in Verdi's Don Carlos to her repertory at Chicago, and, in 1990, the Countess in Capriccio by Richard Strauss, sung first at San Francisco and with equal success at Covent Garden, Glyndebourne and the Met in 1998.

In subsequent years, Te Kanawa performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Paris Opera, Sydney Opera House, the Vienna State Opera, La Scala, Bavarian State Opera in Munich and Cologne Opera, adding to her repertoire the Mozart roles of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, and Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, and Italian roles such as Mimi in Puccini's La bohème. She played Donna Elvira in Joseph Losey's 1979 film adaptation of Don Giovanni. She was seen and heard around the world in 1981 by an estimated 600 million people when she sang Handel's "Let the bright Seraphim" at the wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer.[27]

In 1984, Leonard Bernstein decided to re-record the musical West Side Story, conducting his own music for the first time. Generally known as the "operatic version", it starred Te Kanawa as Maria, José Carreras as Tony, Tatiana Troyanos as Anita, Kurt Ollmann as Riff, and Marilyn Horne as the offstage voice who sings "Somewhere". Te Kanawa was the first of the singers to join the project, saying, "I couldn't believe it...This was music I'd grown up with, music I'd always wanted to sing."[28] The album won a Grammy Award for Best Cast Show Album in 1985, and the recording process was filmed as a documentary, The Making of West Side Story.[29]

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa with the cast of La fille du régiment at the Metropolitan Opera, 24 December 2011

Te Kanawa has a particular affinity for the heroines of Richard Strauss. Her first appearance in the title role in Arabella was at the Houston Grand Opera in 1977, followed by the roles of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and the Countess in Capriccio. Many performances were given under the baton of Georg Solti and it was with him that in 1981 she made a recording[30] of Le nozze di Figaro.

She participated in Prince Edward's 1987 charity television special The Grand Knockout Tournament.

In 1991, she premiered the theme song "World in Union" at the 1991 Rugby World Cup, which reached No.4 on the UK Singles Chart.[31] In 1992, she performed at the Last Night of the Proms, where she sang "Rule, Britannia!".[32]

In 1995, Te Kanawa performed the role of Maria Boccanegra in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, alongside Plácido Domingo, conducted by James Levine.[33]

Later in her career, her appearances on stage became infrequent, but she remained busy as a concert singer. She appeared in performances in the title role of Barber's Vanessa in Monte Carlo (televised in 2001), with the Washington National Opera (2002), and the Los Angeles Opera in November to December 2004. Te Kanawa appeared as a Pennington Great Performers series artist with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra in 2004.[34]

In 2006, Te Kanawa sang "Happy Birthday" to Queen Elizabeth followed by "God Save The Queen" at the Commonwealth Games in Australia.[35]

In April 2010, Te Kanawa sang the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier in two performances at the Cologne Opera. That same year, she played the spoken role of The Duchess of Krakenthorp in Donizetti's La fille du régiment at the Metropolitan Opera, and sang a tango. She repeated this role at the Met in a revival during the 2011–12 season, repeating it again in Vienna in 2013 and at Covent Garden in March 2014, a run that encompassed her 70th birthday. In the meantime, she performed at Haruhisa Handa's inaugural Tokyo Global Concert at Nakano-Zero Hall in Nakano, Tokyo, Japan, on 10 September 2013.[36][37] In October 2013 she appeared in the role of Nellie Melba in the television series Downton Abbey.[38]

Retirement years

Te Kanawa speaking at a celebration of her 80th birthday at Government House, Auckland, in March 2024

On 13 September 2017, Te Kanawa announced her retirement from performing.[39] She then committed herself to nurture young artists, and serving as a judge in several singing competitions. Her final performance was in Ballarat, Australia, in October 2016, but she did not announce her retirement until September 2017.[40][41]

In 2021, she moved back to New Zealand permanently after having lived in the United Kingdom for 55 years.[42] She was part of the official New Zealand delegation to the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.[43][44]


Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation

Te Kanawa established the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation in order that "talented young New Zealand singers and musicians with complete dedication to their art may receive judicious and thoughtful mentoring and support to assist them in realising their dreams."[45] The foundation manages a trust fund that awards scholarships to young New Zealand singers and musicians.

Kiri Prize

In January 2010, Te Kanawa and BBC Radio 2 launched an initiative to find a gifted opera singer of the future. The initiative was the BBC Radio 2 Kiri Prize competition.[46]

Following regional auditions of over 600 aspiring opera singers, 40 were invited to attend masterclasses in London with Te Kanawa, mezzo-soprano Anne Howells and conductor Robin Stapleton. From these classes 15 singers were selected for the semi-finals, which were broadcast on 5 consecutive weeks on BBC Radio 2's Friday Night Is Music Night. The semi-finalists were accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Martin Yates, Richard Balcombe and Roderick Dunk and their performances were judged by Te Kanawa, Howells, Stapleton and director John Cox.

Five singers reached the final, which was broadcast on Radio 2 on 3 September 2010. The winner, soprano Shuna Scott Sendall, performed with Te Kanawa and José Carreras at the BBC Proms in the Park in Hyde Park, London on 11 September 2010, and was given the opportunity to attend a three-week residential course at the Solti Te Kanawa Accademia in Italy.


Māori welfare

In a 2003 interview with the Melbourne-based Herald Sun, Te Kanawa criticised the high rate of welfare dependence among the Māori people, angering some of her compatriots.[47]

Operatic pop

Te Kanawa revealed her disapproval of operatic pop singers in The New Zealand Herald's Canvas magazine of 23 February 2008, criticizing Hayley Westenra on the eve of her Starlight Symphony concert in the Auckland Domain.[48][49][50]

Have you heard Hayley? She's not in my world. She has never been in it at all. She's one of those singers singing today, very successfully [but] they are all fake singers. They sing with a microphone. They are the new fakes for the new generation coming through. But they can only perform with a microphone and they've, basically, never had any formal training. I've had a 40-year career, but these people . . . two or three years and they're gone.

Her comment was met with backlash from music critics and industry personnels, including producer Gray Bartlett, who discovered Westenra, and Katherine Jenkins via her spokesperson.[51][52]


In 2007, the event management company Leading Edge sued Te Kanawa for breach of contract after she cancelled a concert with Australian singer John Farnham. She cancelled after learning that his fans sometimes threw their underwear on stage, which he would then proudly display.[53] The court found that no contract had been made by the two parties, so Te Kanawa was not liable for damages, but Mittane, the company that employs and manages her, was ordered to reimburse Leading Edge A$130,000 for expenditures already incurred.[54][55]


Te Kanawa was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, for services to music, in the 1973 Queen's Birthday Honours,[56] and was elevated to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for services to opera, in the 1982 Queen's Birthday Honours.[57] Appointed Officier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government in 1988, she received the New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal,[58] and was appointed to the Order of New Zealand in the 1995 Queen's Birthday Honours.[59] In the 1990 Australia Day Honours, she was appointed an Honorary Companion of the Order of Australia, for services to the arts, particularly opera, and to the community.[60]

She was portrayed as Saint Cecilia on the stained glass window in St Paul's Cathedral, Dunedin, which was unveiled in October 2012.[61][62]

Appointed a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) in the 2018 Birthday Honours for services to music,[63] Dame Kiri was invested by the Prince of Wales at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 20 December.[64]

In November 2019, the ASB Theatre in the Aotea Centre was renamed the Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre in acknowledgement of the work she has done on the world stage and to mark her 75th birthday.[65] Te Kanawa unveiled a plaque with the change before a gala held in her honour.[66]


Te Kanawa was selected as Artist of the Year by Gramophone magazine in 1982.[67] On 10 June 2008 she received the Edison Classical Music Award during the Edison Classical Music Gala (formerly the Grand Gala du Disque) in the Ridderzaal in The Hague. In 2012, Te Kanawa was awarded a World Class New Zealand award in the Iconic New Zealander category.[68]

In 2006, Te Kanawa was awarded the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement presented by Awards Council member Dame Julie Andrews during the 2006 International Achievement Summit in Los Angeles.[69][70]

In 2010, she received the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music.[71]


Complete works

Solo recitals, compilations, etc.


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  2. ^ "ABC Pronounce". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 12 February 1990. Retrieved 15 August 2019.
  3. ^ John von Rhein (30 July 2001). "Kiri Te Kanawa sails at Ravinia". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 10 February 2020.
  4. ^ "Profile: Tonight she sings for Britain: Kiri Te Kanawa, most beloved". Independent.co.uk. 12 September 1992.
  5. ^ Rhein, John von (20 August 2010). "Nostalgia flows freely as beloved diva charms fans at Ravinia. But don't call it a farewell". chicagotribune.com.
  6. ^ Steane, J.B. (2001). "Kiri Te Kanawa". In Sadie, Stanley; Tyrrell, John (eds.). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan Publishers. ISBN 978-1-56159-239-5.
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  10. ^ Taonga, New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage Te Manatu. "Kohere, Henare Mokena". Teara.govt.nz.
  11. ^ Taonga, New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage Te Manatu. "Kohere, Reweti Tuhorouta". teara.govt.nz.
  12. ^ a b Jenkins & d'Antal 1998.
  13. ^ We Were Born on the Same Day, Au Yong Chee Tuck, Partridge Publishing, 2018, Appendix II
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  18. ^ Billen, Andrew (16 May 2006). "A most undramatic exit for a prima donna". The Times. Retrieved 5 January 2009.
  19. ^ "Brave new world". The Independent. 13 December 1999.
  20. ^ Elizabeth Grice, "The dame doesn't give a damn", The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum Arts, 18 July 1998, p. 15s
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  22. ^ a b c d e Kesting, Jürgen (6 March 2024). "Was für eine schöne Stimme!". FAZ (in German). Retrieved 6 March 2024.
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  24. ^ Frances Donaldson (2011). The Royal Opera House in the Twentieth Century. A&C Black. ISBN 9781448205523.
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  26. ^ Lebrecht 2000.
  27. ^ "Famed soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is coming to Manila". BusinessWorld. 27 September 2000. p. 1.
  28. ^ Rockwell, John (7 September 1984). "New Recording of West Side Story". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  29. ^ "The Making of West Side Story". Classicstoday.com. Retrieved 15 September 2017.
  30. ^ Te Kanawa had previously made videos in 1973 and 1975 under Pritchard and Böhm.
  31. ^ Singh, Amar (21 September 2015). "World in Union: Who sang it better?". Evening Standard.
  32. ^ Heathcote, Graham (13 September 1992). "Triumphant and Silly, Britons Bellow 'Britannia' at Proms Finale". Associated Press. Retrieved 7 February 2021.
  33. ^ Met: on-demand
  34. ^ "Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra Program 1 Season 2015–16". Issuu. 24 September 2015. Retrieved 17 June 2016.
  35. ^ "Dame Kiri Te Kanawa". Classic fm. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  36. ^ "10日は中野で国際交流オペラ" [International Exchange Opera on the 10th in Nakano]. Sports Nippon (in Japanese). Tokyo, Japan. 7 September 2013.
  37. ^ "東京国際コンサート 歌姫ルネ・フレミングをゲストに開催" [Tokyo Global Concert Held – with Renée Fleming as the special guest]. Mostly Classic (in Japanese). 206 (7). Tokyo, Japan: Sankei Shimbun: 96–97. 2014.
  38. ^ Christiansen, Rupert (7 October 2013). "How Downton Abbey got Nellie Melba all wrong". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 12 January 2022. Retrieved 7 September 2019.
  39. ^ "Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: I won't sing in public again". BBC News. 13 September 2017. Retrieved 28 October 2022.
  40. ^ "Dame Kiri takes final bow in brilliant career", Weekend Herald, 16 September 2017. Retrieved 14 November 2017
  41. ^ [1][permanent dead link]
  42. ^ Smith, Julia Llewellyn (7 September 2021). "Kiri Te Kanawa: I've moved back to New Zealand with my (secret) second husband". The Times. Retrieved 28 October 2022.
  43. ^ "NZ representation to Queen Elizabeth II funeral confirmed" (Press release). Beehive.govt.nz. 13 September 2022.
  44. ^ "Who attended the late Queen's funeral? World leaders and countries on the guest list". The Telegraph. 19 September 2022.
  45. ^ "Statement of Mission and Vision". Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation. 13 March 2007.
  46. ^ "The BBC Radio 2 Kiri Prize". BBC Radio 2. 3 September 2010.
  47. ^ "Dame Kiri remarks strike sour note". BBC News. 1 March 2003.
  48. ^ "Frosty Dame Kiri puts Hayley out in the cold". The New Zealand Herald. 23 February 2008. Retrieved 18 May 2023.
  49. ^ Chapman, Paul (23 February 2008). "Dame Kiri Te Kanawa attacks 'opera fakes'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 18 May 2023.
  50. ^ Benson, Nigel (29 February 2008). "Dame Kiri v Hayley: long white gloves off". Otago Daily Times. Retrieved 18 May 2023.
  51. ^ "Agent backs Hayley after Dame Kiri's snub". The New Zealand Herald. 24 February 2008. Retrieved 18 May 2023.
  52. ^ "Opera stars rubbish Katherine jibes". WalesOnline. 28 February 2008. Retrieved 18 May 2023.
  53. ^ "Singer in court for refusing to perform". Yahoo! News. 28 January 2007.
  54. ^ "Kiri Te Kanawa Wins Lawsuit Filed Following Withdrawal from Concerts with Pop Star". Opera News Online. 21 March 2007.
  55. ^ "Kiri Te Kanawa Wins 'Panty-Throwing' Lawsuit". Playbill Arts News: Opera. 21 March 2007.
  56. ^ "No. 45985". The London Gazette (2nd supplement). 2 June 1973. p. 6508.
  57. ^ "No. 49010". The London Gazette (3rd supplement). 12 June 1982. p. 39.
  58. ^ Taylor, Alister, ed. (2001). "New Zealand Who's Who Aotearoa 2001". New Zealand Who's Who, Aotearoa. Auckland: Alister Taylor Publishers: 861. ISSN 1172-9813.
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  60. ^ "Citation of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa". It's an Honour. The Commonwealth Government of Australia. 26 January 1990. Archived from the original on 29 January 2019. Retrieved 17 March 2013.
  61. ^ Manins, Rosie (16 October 2012). "Beauty, culture and reverence illuminated". Otago Daily Times.
  62. ^ Lewis, John (28 March 2013). "Dame Kiri delighted with cathedral depiction". Otago Daily Times.
  63. ^ "No. 62310". The London Gazette (Supplement). 8 June 2018. p. B24.
  64. ^ "Dame Kiri Te Kanawa receives top honour award at Buckingham Palace". The New Zealand Herald. 21 December 2018.
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  67. ^ "Kiri te Kanawa: Artist of the Year 1992", classicfm.com.
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  69. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". Achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  70. ^ "2006 Summit Highlights Photo". Awards Council member Dame Julie Andrews inducts Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, internationally acclaimed soprano.
  71. ^ "Dame Kiri's Classical Brits honour". Irish Independent. PA Media. 9 February 2010.
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Further reading