Her voice has been described as "mellow yet vibrant, warm, ample and unforced". Music critics have consistently praised the freshness and warmth of her voice. The sheer beauty of Te Kanawa's voice made her one of the leading operatic sopranos internationally of the 1970s and 1980s. She found particular success in portraying princesses, noble countesses and other similar characters on stage, as her naturally dignified stage presence and physical beauty complemented these roles well.
Although she now only rarely sings in operas, Te Kanawa still frequently performs in concert and recital, while giving masterclasses and supporting young opera singers in launching their careers.
Te Kanawa was born as Claire Mary Teresa Rawstron in Gisborne on New Zealand's North Island. She has Māori and European ancestry, but little is known about her birth parents, as she was adopted as an infant by Thomas Te Kanawa, a Māori, and his wife, Nell. She was educated at Saint Mary's College Auckland and formally trained in operatic singing by Sister Mary Leo, RSM. Te Kanawa began her singing career as a mezzo-soprano, but later developed into a soprano. Her recording of the "Nuns' Chorus" from the Strauss operetta Casanova was New Zealand's first gold record.
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). They divorced in 1997. She had never made any attempt to contact her natural parents, but around this time, her half-brother Jim Rawstron contacted her. Initially, she was not willing to meet him, but later agreed to. This episode ended in bitterness, and she 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 popular entertainer at clubs in New Zealand, and regularly appeared in newspapers and magazines. In 1965 she won the Mobil Song Quest with her performance of "Vissi d'arte" from Puccini's Tosca. In 1963, she was runner-up to Malvina Major in the same competition. As the winner, she received a grant to study in London. In 1966, she then won the prestigious Australian Melbourne Sun-Aria contest, which Major had also won the previous year. Both students had been taught by Sister Mary Leo.
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 fifteenth season. He cast her in the role of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, which opened on 30 July 1971. The performance also featured Frederica von Stade in her debut as Cherubino. "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." It was followed by performances as the Countess at the Opéra National de Lyon and San Francisco Opera in autumn 1972. She sang her first Desdemona in Glasgow in 1972 while her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1974 as Desdemona in Otello took place at short notice, replacing an ill Teresa Stratas at the last minute. She 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 Metropolitan in 1998.
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 (her third; she made videos in 1973 and 1975 under Pritchard and Böhm) of The Marriage of Figaro.
In April 2010 she sang the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss in two performances at the Cologne Opera in Germany. Te Kanawa has appeared as a Pennington Great Performers series artist with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra in 2004.
Also in 2010 Te Kanawa played the spoken part 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, and is repeating it again in Vienna in 2013 and at Covent Garden in March 2014 (a run that comprises her 70th birthday).
Te Kanawa received honorary degrees from the UK universities of Bath, Cambridge, Dundee, Durham, Nottingham, Oxford, Sunderland, Warwick as well as the Universities of Chicago, Auckland (NZ) and Waikato (NZ) and is an honorary fellow of Somerville College, Oxford and Wolfson College, Cambridge. She is also patron of Ringmer Community College, a school in the South-East of England situated not far from Glyndebourne.
In 2012, Te Kanawa was awarded a World Class New Zealand award in the Iconic New Zealander category.
Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation
Te Kanawa founded the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation with the vision "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 to provide financial and career scholarships to young New Zealand singers and musicians.
The 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 masterclasses fifteen 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, Anne Howells, Robin Stapleton and director John Cox.
Five singers went through to the final which was broadcast on Radio 2 on Friday 3 September 2010. The winner - soprano Shuna Scott Sendall - performed with Te Kanawa and José Carreras at BBC Proms In The Park in Hyde Park, London on Saturday 11 September 2010 and was given the opportunity to attend a three-week residential course at the Solti Te Kanawa Accademia in Italy.
In a 2003 interview with the Melbourne-based Herald Sun she criticised the high rate of welfare dependence among the Māori people, angering some of her compatriots.
In 2007, Te Kanawa was sued for breach of contract by event management company Leading Edge, after cancelling 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. She won the suit, but her Mittane company which employs and manages her was ordered to pay A$102,000 in court costs.
Moved to Auckland and studied under Sister Mary Leo 1959-1965 at St Mary's College.
Had New Zealand's first gold disc, with a popular operatic aria.
Was 2nd to Dame Malvina Major in the Mobil Song Quest in 1963, and won it in 1965.
In 1977 she appeared at the Royal Opera House in a German/English production of Die Fledermaus. The New Year's Eve performance, conducted by Zubin Mehta, was recorded for television with the cast was virtually duplicated on the later DVD release. The performance was broadcast on TV in the US on New Year's Eve 1979.
6 February 2010, returned to the Metropolitan Opera as the Duchess of Krakenthorp in La Fille du Régiment - typically a non-singing character part, but an art song by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera was interpolated into the production for her to sing.
April 2010, returned to the Cologne Opera House in Germany for two final performances of the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier.
1972 - Mozart - Exsultate Jubilate - (Exsultate Jubilate, Vesperae Solennes De Confessore, Kyrie In D Minor, Ave Verum Corpus ), Te Kanawa, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Colin Davis [Philips] (also re-issued 1986)
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]
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 - Puccini - Tosca - as Floria Tosca in a studio recording under Georg Solti
1984 - Ave Maria - a collection of religious favorites with the English Chamber Orchestra and the Choir of St. Paul's Cathedral, London
1984 - A Portrait of Kiri Te Kanawa [CBS SBR 236068]
1985 - Handel - Messiah - with Anne Gjevang, Keith Lewis, Gwynne Howell, Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Sir Georg Solti [3xLP, Album + Box, London Records]
1985 - Leonard BernsteinWest Side Story - a recording of Bernstein's music for the Broadway production West Side Story, with José Carreras singing the part of Tony and Leonard Bernstein himself conducting the orchestra and chorus [Polygram 415253]
1987 - Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick 'Fritz' Loewe - My Fair Lady - a studio cast recording with Te Kanawa singing the role of Eliza Doolittle and Jeremy Irons singing the role of Henry Higgins [Polygram 421200]
1987 - Kiri Sings Gershwin - a collection of George Gershwin songs with the New Princess Theater Orchestra, John McGlinn [EMI]
1987 - Portrait [Polygram 417645]
1987 - Beethoven - Symphonie No.9 - Te Kanawa, Hamari, Burrows, Holl, London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Eugen Jochum [EMI]
^Rubin, Stephen E. (3 March 1974). "Kiri Did It All With A Bit of Maori Pride; About Kiri Te Kanawa". New York Times. p. AL 15. "We met on a blind date in London and wed about six weeks later."|accessdate= requires |url= (help)
Gilbert, Susie; and Jay Shir (2003). A Tale of Four Houses: Opera at Covent Garden, La Scala, Vienna and the Met since 1945. London: HarperCollins. ISBN0-00-255820-3.Cite uses deprecated parameters (help)
Jenkins, Garry; and Stephen d'Antal (1998). Kiri: Her Unsung Story. London: HarperCollins. ISBN0-00-255942-0.Cite uses deprecated parameters (help)
Lebrecht, Norman (2000). Covent Garden: The Untold Story: Dispatches from the English Culture War, 1945-2000. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN0-684-85143-1.
Scott, Eleanor (1976). The First Twenty Years of the Santa Fe Opera. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Sunstone Press.