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If you like Kiri Te Kanawa's story, you might also like:
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Kiri Te Kanawa
Kiri Te Kanawa
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Kiri Te Kanawa Biography

Beloved Opera Singer

Kiri Te Kanawa Date of birth: March 6, 1944

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  Kiri Te Kanawa

Kiri Te Kanawa Biography Photo
The internationally famed soprano, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, was born Claire Mary Teresa Rawstron in the small New Zealand seaside town of Gisborne, where Captain James Cook first made landfall. Just at the edge of the international date line, it prides itself as the first city in the world to greet the sun. Here, the birth child of a native Maori man and a woman of European extraction was adopted at five weeks of age by a local couple, Tom and Nell Te Kanawa, he also a Maori and she with family ties to the British Isles. The Te Kanawas named their daughter Kiri, the Maori word for bell. She was to be their only child.

The family came from modest circumstances: Tom Te Kanawa ran a truck contracting business, while his wife stayed home with Kiri. Some of the soprano's earliest recollections are of blissfully swimming in the sea with her father and of fishing. On one outing, she nearly drowned when a boat capsized, trapping her underneath, until her father managed to dive down and rescue her. And for almost as long as she can remember, she sang. Her first performances were on a little stage jerry-rigged in the Te Kanawa's house, complete with a curtain; "the curtains would come back," she recalled, "and I'd get up and sing." Without a television in the home, music and singing quickly became the primary entertainment. But although her mom played piano, from early on, Kiri eschewed command performances: "I was rather sort of miffy about it even then. I'd only sing when I felt like it."

Yet where Te Kanawa had a breezy indifference to her own voice, her mother heard something magical: the raw beauty and talent of her dulcet tones. She told her daughter one morning that she had seen a wondrous vision of Kiri singing at London's Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Soon, for Te Kanawa's mother, transforming that vision into a reality became her own life's dream. But the journey from the languid, peaceful New Zealand coast to top billing in London and New York and then super-stardom literally around the globe was a long and arduous one. Te Kanawa says simply that it would take "years and years" to detail how much her parents sacrificed for her, adding with genuine emotion, "the reasons that I'm here today is because of the sacrifice of my parents."

Kiri Te Kanawa Biography Photo
Te Kanawa began her remarkable rise in the most ordinary of venues, singing at a local school. From there, she would go on to perform at weddings and funerals. The money she pocketed helped pay for her basic necessities, like clothes, as well as for her singing lessons. By 1956, wanting to do whatever they could for their daughter's talent, the Te Kanawas had packed up for Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, so Kiri could study with a former opera singer turned nun, Sister Mary Leo, at St. Mary's College for Girls. The schedule was brutal and the schooling, more often than not, a disaster. Te Kanawa was routinely plucked from class in the middle of her lessons to work on her singing whenever Sister Mary was free, and as a consequence, her grades suffered. Within two years, Te Kanawa was asked to leave St. Mary's.

Undaunted, she enrolled in a business school, where she learned to type and write in shorthand. But she never gave up on her singing. She took a job as a receptionist and then as a telephone operator so she could work at night and study singing during the day. And with pluck and daring, she began to enter competitions. Her breakthrough started in 1960, when she won the Auckland Competition. From there, it was on to voice competitions in Australia. By 1965, she had won most of the South Pacific's major vocal prizes. She also sang in music show choruses and nightclubs -- during one memorable performance, Te Kanawa, dressed all in white, serenaded a drunken club crowd with "Ave Maria." Then, at age 21, having banked her prize money and earnings, not to mention a scholarship from the New Zealand government, she set off across the globe to England. There, she would finally sing in her first opera.

Kiri Te Kanawa Biography Photo
Te Kanawa enrolled at the London Opera Centre and began her formal instruction in earnest. After a master class at the Centre, it was the celebrated Australian conductor, Richard Bonynge, who told Te Kanawa that she was a soprano, not a mezzo soprano. In 1967, she married Desmond Park, an Australian engineer whom she met in London, and within seven years, her life would be utterly transformed. Her first milestone was finding former Vienna opera star Vera Rozsa, who became her singing coach. Rozsa systematically schooled her in interpretation and stage acting, as well as the technical aspects of operatic singing. By 1970, fulfilling her mother's dream, Te Kanawa made her debut at the famed Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, singing the roles of Xenia in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. She also appeared that season as a flower maiden in Wagner's Parsifal, but the performance that began her stratospheric rise was as Countess Almaviva in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in December of 1971. For that, she earned 50 to 100 English pounds per week, a salary that remained unchanged for the rest of her five-year contract.

Critics have described Te Kanawa's voice as having a "platinum tone and regal aura," but she herself is far more regular than regal; she has often said that she prefers rehearsals with her fellow cast members to full operatic performances. Indeed, Te Kanawa describes opera, which requires not simply singing talent, but the ability to act and move in concert with all the other performers on the stage as, quite simply, "a mess." She explains, "There's the music. There's the coaching. There's the instruction. There's the language. There's the stage movements, the conductor, the agents, singing teachers, and everybody else." It is, in her view, nothing short of "a circus." Actually, Te Kanawa marvels, "You feel as though your brain is going to break." Her answer, she says, is to retreat into her "typical South Pacific, Polynesian mode" of just going "whoo" and not taking any notice of the whirlwind around her.

Kiri Te Kanawa Biography Photo
In 1974, Te Kanawa was released by Covent Garden to journey to New York's Metropolitan Opera as the understudy for noted soprano Teresa Stratas, who was headlining as Desdemona in Verdi's Otello. Te Kanawa watched a dress rehearsal, an through the entire staging on a cold and snowy Friday and then went home to bed. The next morning, she awoke and contemplated a day of shopping. Stratas, after all, was the one who was the marquee star, and the one who was set to take the stage. Then the telephone rang. Jokingly, she told a friend who was staying with her that if it was the Met to tell them that she had indeed "gone shopping." The friend took her at her word and hung up. The next call, from Te Kanawa's agent, was far more frantic, telling her to get down to the opera house. Without even so much as a dressing gown in hand, she hailed a cab on the snow-covered New York streets and hopped in. The cabbie, it turned out, was from Brooklyn and had never been to the Met. Te Kanawa ended up directing him herself and raced through the front door. The matinee curtain was rising imminently, and the backstage staff bundled Te Kanawa into her wig and costume and makeup. The performance was scheduled to be broadcast across the United States. There was, she remembered, no time for nerves, only "all-out panic." This one illustrious performance that made Kiri Te Kanawa an international sensation. Remarkably, she made her New York debut with not a single friend or family member in the audience. "I went on, the loneliest person in the world."

Kiri Te Kanawa Biography Photo
Te Kanawa still has mixed emotions about that unprecedented debut, describing it as akin to being "in a jumbo jet going faster than anybody else in the entire planet on that day." And even the charmed career that followed -- demanding performances around the globe, media profiles, numerous recordings, the legendary status as one of the world's greatest opera stars, and in 1981, the personal invitation to sing at the wedding of England's Price Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at Westminster Abbey before a record global audience of over 600 million -- has left her with an imprint of surprisingly ambivalent feelings. An early riser, Te Kanawa never enjoyed late-night post-performance parties or suppers, preferring instead to return home and go to bed. Almost indifferent to the public eye, she dismisses many of her accolades, saying that praise simply "comes and goes."

There also remains in Te Kanawa a wistful sadness about the high price of a career that required her to live out of suitcases for months on end. In fact, for all the thunder and noise of the opera stage, she hears with equal and even keener precision the silence, describing the loneliness of leaving the stage after being cheered and handed flowers: "Then you go back to the hotel and all the flowers are dying. And it's very lonely in the hotel room. There's nothing there."

Kiri Te Kanawa Biography Photo
Her own life too has had its quiet hurts and tragedies. Te Kanawa's mother died not long after her 1971 debut at Covent Garden. After a serious bout of illness that forced her to quit performing for three months, Te Kanawa and her husband adopted a daughter, Antonia. Three years later, they adopted a son, Thomas. But the marriage ultimately could not hold; she and her husband divorced in the late 1990s. She zealously guards her private life, but cryptically says, "if you're going to have a career like this, I think there's huge problems." In part, she blames her career for the break-up of her marriage and suggests that it took a toll on her children. Moreover, at more reflective moments, she wonders if she should have given it all up and left the stage. "Sometimes in the darkest time, when I regret a lot, in that dark part of the night when it's really black, I just see this stinking career took so much. Yet it gave me so much."

Glamorous, elegant, stunningly beautiful, Kiri Te Kanawa is still a household name. The little girl from a tiny corner of New Zealand ultimately rose to become a Dame Commander of the British Empire and the recipient of distinguished honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. A concert she gave in Auckland attracted a record-breaking 140,000 fans, and she sang the first song of the new millennium in Gisborne, to a global audience in over 80 countries of some one billion. She was also invited to perform at Buckingham Palace for Queen Elizabeth II's Jubilee.

Kiri Te Kanawa Biography Photo
As an artist, she is most at home among the works of Mozart, Verdi, and Strauss; Mozart, she has often been told, is the perfect match for her voice. She once described Strauss as "music that fits me like a glove, lyrical and passionate at the same time." Yet for her own pleasure, Te Kanawa prefers the sounds of the instruments alone; in periods of solitude, she listens to Wagner's orchestral music, rather than having "to pay attention to voices."

Te Kanawa remains a deeply patriotic New Zealander, who seeks solace and rejuvenation in the lush, green north coastal region, where the ocean amiably wanders in and out of peaceful inlets. Ironically, the diva who made her mark singing the roles of royalty in elaborate costumes on ornate stages, is a self-described tomboy, who enthusiastically fishes, hikes, boats, plays golf and tennis, and even shoots clay pigeons. Now retired from the operatic stage, she has gradually reduced her engagements, but continues to perform in concert. Her current passion is the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation, which she founded to help support promising young New Zealanders with musical talent. The Foundation provides them with mentoring, coaching, and some financial support. She hopes to open doors for them, something she lacked early in her own career. She shares her simple formula for her own success, that she "never ever missed a green light." She adds that, walking down the street, she would not stop for a red light. "I'm sort of criss crossing to get to the green light all the time. And that's been aim in life: to never miss an opportunity."

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performed at the 2006 International Achievement Summit in
Los Angeles, accompanied by Academy member John Williams and the L.A. Philharmonic.
Watch Dame Kiri sing "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini.

This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:28 EDT
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