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Dame Kiri’s gilded age: ‘home is where my heart is’

Reflecting on a brilliant career, our beloved diva shares what she treasures most
Images: Jae Frew

She’s performed on the world’s greatest stages, sung for royalty, recorded more than 80 albums and won an unfathomable number of awards. And as she catches up with the Weekly for her 80th birthday, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is as glamorous and resplendent as ever.

Kiri’s significant milestone has attracted both national and international attention. She is, however, just as at home in the outdoors as she is in front of audiences of thousands and marked the day with a very Kiwi pastime – fishing in the Bay of Islands with her husband Kevin and spending time with her five dogs.

“When you get to this age, occasionally you just want to relax and step away from everything,” the world-famous soprano muses. “I suppose getting to 80 is quite important – and still being alive!”

Posing for the Weekly’s exclusive photoshoot, she has already had a morning of interviews. Her energy and zest for life are contagious. Always one to keep learning, always keen to keep moving, Kiri has no plans of slowing down soon.

“There’s just so much to look forward to,” she says. “My life is very busy and it doesn’t stop being busy. There’s always a project and a next project.”

After a dazzling career spanning more than 50 years, Kiri adores spending time with Luther, her treasured six-year-old grandson, who also loves to sing – though he isn’t so keen to join the school choir.

Kiri tells, “He said, ‘It’s in my break time and I don’t want it in my break time or my lunchtime.’ So that’s the end of the choir.

“He’s grown up so fast. He’s very bright and my son [Tom] is a good dad.”

All of Kiri’s family, she says, are “healthy and well, and that is the most important thing”.

Beloved grandson Luther.

She remains busy with The Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation, which provides funding and support for young singers with exceptional potential pursuing careers in opera.

“Just give them the first step and then once they get the bug, that’s it,” says Kiri of one of her most important legacies. “That’s the first step. I think it must have been something I did too. You get to that first very special moment and you say, ‘Oh, this is rather nice,’ and you go for the next one and the next. And suddenly it takes off.”

In June, she’ll head to London, where there is a concert at Opera Holland Park to raise money for Kiri’s foundation and to mark her 80th birthday.

Meanwhile, at home, there is always a chore waiting. The passionate gardener wakes each morning with a long list of things to do, such as putting newspapers over her plants to protect them from the Northland sun.

And, of course, there are her beloved dogs, Nyack, Eska, Chenna, Abbey and Cinque, who recently joined the whānau.

Doggies for a diva: Kiri with (from left) Abbey, Chenna, Eska, newcomer Cinque and Nyack.

“She’s number five and she’s position number five,” says Kiri. “So I have to live a very long time because she’ll last 10 years at least. Kevin gets up at night to put her out and within seconds she’s back in my bed, and he’s standing outside waiting for her but she’s already in! I say to him, ‘You have to keep an eye on that one.’

“There’s my work, there’s my home and then there’s my grandson,” she adds. “Everything, it’s all together.”

In 2021, Kiri shared with the Weekly that she and Kevin, who is intensely private, had returned to New Zealand to live. Like many others who found themselves separated from their families and loved ones, she’d found the Covid pandemic extremely difficult.

Kiri moved to England aged 21.

“It is my country,” she says. “I was always planning to come home, but we didn’t know when and even now I think it was a really fast decision. But I don’t think it was the wrong decision.

“Being 80, how many more summers have I got? I also didn’t like the winters over there. They were harsh – I have arthritis in my fingers and while I still have pain, it’s not like it used to be.”

Kiri was just 21 when she first left our shores and she reflects, “My childhood was school, singing, choir, singing, singing, singing and then I went to England. There wasn’t a real childhood.”

Born in Gisborne in 1944, she was adopted by Tom and Nell Te Kanawa when she was five weeks old.

“Looking back, they were very good parents,” Kiri says. “They taught me well, but they never said, ‘You will do this’ [singing]. They just went along with it. I think my father was never overwhelmed by it – he didn’t take much notice of it at all. He just loved me, whatever I did.”

Kiri with her parents Tom and Nell. “They gave everything to me.”

As a teenager, she attended Auckland’s St Mary’s College, and it was there she met Sister Mary Leo, who quickly picked up on Kiri’s talent and took her under her wing. This included pulling her out of class to practise, which, Kiri told the Weekly in 2022, limited her education.

“I basically educated myself, but in the first years of my career, I couldn’t even write a letter because I’d never had time to sit in class. In those early years, I saved letters from all sorts of people. Any thank-you letters I saved and tried to copy what they’d said in order to write a decent letter.”

While she knew she could sing, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, at no point did Kiri point to a future goal and decide it was what she wanted.

“Some young people say, ‘I’m going to be this and I’m going to get there’, and I always hope they do,” she explains. “But none of that was me. I’m looking back a lot now, about how it all happened and it didn’t happen as many people assume. I see my career as something I got into with no great end goal in mind. One thing just led to another.

Attending the Classical Brit Awards in 2006 to an ovation.

“What happened is this: it developed. And so I got into Covent Garden and I was thrilled. I don’t know how I did it but then again, I had a very good manager. So I had someone who placed me and did amazing things, but they were all managed… I stuck to the plan, so to speak.”

Already a successful singer when she left New Zealand, Kiri captured the attention of the world when she was cast as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden in 1971. The positive reviews flooded in.

In 1974, she was in New York as an understudy for Desdemona in a Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s Otello when she received the call – with three hours’ notice – that she was needed on stage. “The Met got me into America, which was always a hard one to crack,” recalls Kiri.

And then she was catapulted into stratospheric fame with her performance of Handel’s Let the Bright Seraphim at the wedding of Prince Charles and 20-year-old Lady Diana Spencer, which was watched by some 600 million viewers. The British Empire made her Dame Commander of the Order the following year.

“Everyone thinks my career began at the wedding, but it didn’t,” tells Kiri. “That was in 1981 and I had already been there since 1966.”

Kiri’s career-defining role as the Countess in Marriage of Figaro in 1971.

Ultimately, Kiri’s singing career spanned more than five decades, with each performance carefully planned for hours, days, weeks and even years before.

“So what happens when I go on stage? I’m already there,” she says. “I’ve already gone through the trauma and the nerves. I’ve already gone through the learning and the mistakes and the coaching, and the conductor telling me this and the linguists telling me that… The producer, the wigmaker… It’s all the village and then you get the call, you hear the buzzer and you walk on stage and you do it. When you get there, you’re there. When I get on that stage, I have already finished. I have already arrived.”

Kiri’s career certainly wasn’t for the faint-hearted. The mum of Antonia and Tom was constantly travelling, and she had a gruelling schedule. She had her diary planned up to five years in advance, filled with practices and performances, with very few days off.

“You get up, you get the children changed. You give them breakfast and you take them to school, then you come back and you do your work. And then you go into town and have a singing lesson, then rehearsals and then you go home and you see the children, cook their food, maybe with the nanny helping,” she says before adding with a grin, “It was just ordinary.”

So, would she do it all again?

“I would because it was worth it,” she admits. “But then all the other stuff around family, children, husband, that was another thing in itself. How did I do that? I got divorced [from first husband Desmond Park] after 29 years. How the hell did I do all that? It’s a lot to do.”

Her work ethic has meant the often-laidback lifestyle of the Far North has been an adjustment.

“Everyone’s fishing!” she laughs. “Does the roof need fixing? No, they’re out fishing. The window man? No, he’s out fishing. They say, ‘We can’t come today, we’ll come tomorrow because it’s a better day for fishing.’ I love this – it’s the right balance.”

Our down-to-earth dame mucking about with cows in 1976. She still loves the great outdoors today.

Phones frustrate her, though. “There’s such a preoccupation with the damn phone and internet,” Kiri exclaims. “No one sort of waits. Wake up and smell the roses! No one does that – it’s all lost because they’re looking down.”

She’s learned many lessons along the way. Most importantly, how to deal with mistakes.

“Every mistake you’ve made, if you can correct it, do it,” she advises. “I learn all the time from my mistakes, still. Whether it’s cooking things incorrectly, growing things incorrectly or speaking to young people without having care of their sensitivities, all sorts of things you learn. I always tell my singers the more mistakes you make, the more you’re going to learn because you’re not going to do that again.”

Life in the Far North agrees with Kiri. “I love this – it’s the right balance.”

And as she reflects on her remarkable life, Kiri says at its essence has been a lot of love and a whole lot of luck.

“I think I’ve been very lucky,” she reflects. An incredibly grateful Kiri says, “I had wonderful parents who gave everything to me.

“I had wonderful people around me who really cared – very kind, wonderful people who weren’t over the top, but I have been just gently loved. Really loved… Each year would be a highlight for me.”

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