Kiri Te Kanawa

Kiri Te Kanawa

Te Kanawa in 2013
Claire Mary Teresa Rawstron

(1944-03-06) 6 March 1944 (age 79)
Gisborne, New Zealand
OccupationOpera singer (soprano)
Years active1968–2017
Desmond Park
(m. 1967; div. 1997)

Dame Kiri Jeanette Claire Te Kanawa, ONZ, CH, DBE, AC (/ˈkɪri təˈkɑːnəwə/; born Claire Mary Teresa Rawstron, 6 March 1944) is a retired New Zealand opera singer. She had a full lyric soprano voice, which has been described as "mellow yet vibrant, warm, ample and unforced". Her extensive discography includes three albums which featured in the top forty in charts in Australia in the mid-1980s.

Te Kanawa received accolades in many countries, 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, Strauss, Verdi, Handel and Puccini, and was often cast as an aristocrat.

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. Her final performance was in Ballarat, Australia, in October 2016, but she did not announce her retirement until September 2017.

Personal life

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. Wawatai was already married to Apo, the daughter of the Rev. Poihipi Kōhere. Rawstron's mother insisted the baby be given up for adoption. Te Kanawa was adopted as an infant by Thomas Te Kanawa, the owner of a successful trucking business, and his wife Nell.

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. Her recording of the "Nuns' Chorus" from the Strauss 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. They adopted two children, Antonia (born 1976) and Thomas (born 1979). The couple divorced in 1997. 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, Te Kanawa has since reaffirmed her decision to have nothing to do with her birth family.


In her teens and early 20s, Te Kanawa was a pop star and entertainer at clubs in New Zealand,[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 Tosca, and in 1965 she won the same competition. As winner, she received a grant to study in London.

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 also 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. She first appeared on stage as the Second Lady in Mozart's The Magic Flute, as well as in performances of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas in December 1968 at the Sadler's Wells Theatre. She also sang the title role in Donizetti's Anna Bolena. In 1969, she sang Elena in Rossini's La donna del lago at the Camden Festival, and was also offered the role of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro 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." 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 Covent Garden, where she made her debut as Xenia in Boris Godunov and a Flower Maiden in Parsifal in 1970. Under director John Copley, Te Kanawa was carefully groomed for the role of the Countess 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 The Marriage of Figaro, which opened on 30 July 1971. The production also featured Frederica von Stade's first appearance in what was to be 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."

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." 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 début as Desdemona took place at short notice: she replaced an ill Teresa Stratas at the last minute. 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 Don Carlos to her repertory at Chicago, and, in 1990, the Countess in Capriccio, 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, San Francisco Opera, Munich and Cologne, adding to her repertoire the Mozart roles of Donna Elvira, Pamina, and Fiordiligi to 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.

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." 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.

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 of The Marriage of 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. In 1992, she performed at the Last Night of the Proms, where she sang "Rule, Britannia!".

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

In later parts of her career, her appearances onstage became infrequent, although she remained busy as a concert singer. She appeared in performances in Samuel 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 has appeared as a Pennington Great Performers series artist with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra in 2004.

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

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 part of The Duchess of Krakenthorp in 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. In October 2013 she appeared in the role of Nellie Melba in the television series Downton Abbey.

Retirement years

On 13 September 2017, Te Kanawa announced her retirement from performing. After retirement, she committed herself to nurture young artists, sitting as a judge in several singing competitions.

In 2021, she moved back to New Zealand permanently after living in the United Kingdom for 55 years. She was part of the official New Zealand delegation to the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.


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." 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.

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.

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.

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.


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. 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.


Te Kanawa was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, for services to music, in the 1973 Queen's Birthday Honours, and was elevated to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for services to opera, in the 1982 Queen's Birthday Honours. Appointed Officier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government in 1988, she received the New Zealand 1990 Commemoration Medal, and was appointed to the Order of New Zealand in the 1995 Queen's Birthday Honours. 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.

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

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

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. Te Kanawa unveiled a plaque with the change before a gala held in her honour.


Te Kanawa was selected as Artist of the Year by Gramophone magazine in 1982. 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.

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.

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


Complete works

Solo recitals, compilations, etc.

  • 1973 – My Favourite Things [Hallmark, SHM 3218]
  • 1974 – Herrmann – Salammbo's Aria from Citizen KaneThe Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann – Kiri Te Kanawa, National Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Gerhardt [RCA Victor, BMG Classics]
  • 1979 – Richard Strauss – Four Last Songs – London Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Davis [CBS Masterworks]
  • 1981 – Mozart Concert Arias – Kiri Te Kanawa, Wiener Kammerorchester, Gyorgy Fischer [London/Decca Jubilee 417756]
  • 1983 – Canteloube – Chants d'Auvergne (Songs of The Auvergne) / Villa-Lobos – Bachianas Brasileiras [Polygram SXDL 7604]
  • 1983 – Mozart Opera Arias – London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis [Philips], [Polygram 5414319]
  • 1983 – Verdi & Puccini – London Philharmonic Orchestra, John Pritchard [CBS 37298]
  • 1983 – The Metropolitan Opera Centennial Gala – Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine [Deutsche Grammophon DVD 00440 073 4538]
  • 1984 – Come to the Fair – Folk Songs & Ballads – with the Medici String Quartet and members of the National Philharmonic Orchestra, Douglas Gamley [EMI EMC 222]
  • 1984 – Ave Maria – a collection of religious favorites with the English Chamber Orchestra and the Choir of St. Paul's Cathedral, London [Philips 412629]
  • 1984 – A Portrait of Kiri Te Kanawa [CBS SBR 236068]
  • 1985 – A Room with a View (OST) – the Puccini arias "O mio babbino caro" (Gianni Schicchi) and "Chi bel sogno di Doretta" (La Rondine) in the Merchant Ivory film A Room with a View [DRG CDSBL 12588]
  • 1986 – Kiri – Blue Skies – with Nelson Riddle And His Orchestra [Polygram/Decca 414 666–1 ] – AUS No. 36
  • 1986 – Christmas with Kiri (with Philharmonia Orchestra of London and Chorus, Carl Davis) London Classic / Polygram
  • 1987 – Kiri Sings Gershwin, a collection of George Gershwin songs with the New Princess Theater Orchestra, John McGlinn [EMI] – AUS No. 37
  • 1987 – Portrait [Polygram 417645]
  • 1989 – Songs of Inspiration – Kiri Te Kanawa, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Utah Symphony Orchestra, Julius Rudel [London/Decca/Polygram 425431]
  • 1990 – Kiri in Recital – Liszt, Obradors, Ravel – Kiri Te Kanawa, with Roger Vignoles (Piano) [London/Decca 425820 ]
  • 1990 – Italian Opera Arias – with London Symphony Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung
  • 1991 – Richard Strauss – Four Last Songs and other songs – with Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic
  • 1991 – The Kiri Selection
  • 1991 – Kiri Sings Kern
  • 1991 – World in Union (Single, 7") – (Rugby Union World Cup Theme Song) [Columbia]
  • 1992 – Paul McCartney and Carl Davis – Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio (Movement VII: "Crises")
  • 1992 – Kiri Sidetracks: The Jazz Album
  • 1993 – Mozart Arias (Grand Voci) [Decca]
  • 1993 – Classics – Mozart, Handel, Gounod, Schubet, Strauss [Philips 434725]
  • 1994 – Heart to Heart (with Malcolm McNeill)
  • 1994 – The Sorceress – arias from Handel operas with Hogwood and The Academy of Ancient Music
  • 1994 – Kiri!: Her Greatest Hits Live [Decca 443600]
  • 1994 – Kiri Sings PorterCole Porter songs [Angel]
  • 1995 – Christmas with Kiri Te Kanawa: Carols from Coventry Cathedral – Kiri Te Kanawa, Michael George, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Robin Stapleton [Teldec]
  • 1996 – Franz Schubert – Lieder – Judith Raskin, Kiri Te Kanawa, Elly Ameling, Peter Pears, Judith Blegen [Sony Classical]
  • 1996 – James Levine's 25th Anniversary Metropolitan Opera Gala, [Deutsche Grammophon DVD, B0004602-09]
  • 1997 – French Songs and Arias
  • 1997 – Sole et amore – Puccini Arias – Te Kanawa, Vignoles, Orchestre de L'Opera National de Lyon, Kent Nagano [Erato]
  • 1998 – The Greatest Classical Stars on Earth – Plácido Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa, Luciano Pavarotti, Lesley Garrett, Nigel Kennedy (2CD, Compilation) [Decca]
  • 1999 – Maori Songs (Air New Zealand) [EMI Classics 5 56828-2]
  • 1999 – Greatest Hits [EMI Classics]
  • 2001 – Kiri (also known as Kiri – The Best Of)
  • 2003 – The Very Best Of
  • 2004 – Kiri – A Portrait
  • 2004 – Dame Kiri Te Kanawa & Friends: The Gala ConcertGold
  • 2005 – The Best of Kiri Te Kanawa [20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection]
  • 2006 – Kiri Sings Karl: Songs of Mystery & Enchantment – arranged and conducted by Karl Jenkins [EMI Classics]
  • 2013 – Waiata Sony Music Entertainment

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