Career

How Dame Kiri Te Kanawa is helping others to achieve their dreams

Kiri says her greatest joy comes from seeing others succeed in the competitive world of opera.

Soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa shocked the opera world when she announced her retirement last year. The Kiwi star brought down the curtain on her glittering career at the age of 73, after deciding to focus on helping younger singers break into an ever-changing industry.

A year on, Kiri says her greatest joy comes from seeing others succeed in the competitive world of opera.

The celebrated soprano, who has not performed publicly for some time, admits, "I don't want to hear my voice, it is in the past. When I'm teaching young singers and hearing beautiful young, fresh voices, I don't want to put my voice next to theirs."

Kiri was born Claire Teresa Rawstron in Gisborne and her recording of the Nuns' Chorus from the Strauss operetta Casanova was New Zealand's first gold record.

Her career spanned more than five decades and included performances at the world's top opera houses, although she is best known as the diva who sang at Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer's wedding in London back in 1981.

More than half a billion people heard her singing Let the Bright Seraphim by Handel during the ceremony at St Paul's Cathedral, but after Diana's death in 1997, she refused to ever sing or listen to the song again.

Chatting with Princess Diana after performing at the Prince's Trust Gala in 1989.
Chatting with Princess Diana after performing at the Prince's Trust Gala in 1989.

"When she died, I felt that I should put that song away forever," explains Kiri.

"In sort of respect for her. The death and everything about it was such a terrible thing that I never wanted to hear it again."

The opera star was also invited to perform at Diana's funeral in 1997, but declined as she was too upset over the Princess of Wales' death.

Today, Kiri helps the young through the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation, which was set up in 2004 to help outstanding New Zealand singers reach their potential.

On her work, she reveals, "Well, I didn't retire. When you retire you die. I have not died just yet.

"No, I have a foundation and I have many things I do. The foundation helps people who want to get into opera in New Zealand and over in the UK."

Dame Kiri, who is a mother of two, adds, "I have created a healthy scholarship foundation. We are slowly developing and it takes time. The industry needs a lot of help now. I think it is difficult for all operas because of other affections for other performers who are having instant success, which does not seem to last as long as ours."

Kiri's big break came in 1971 at Covent Garden in London when she was cast as the Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro. She soon found herself among opera's elite, sharing the stage with José Carreras and Placido Domingo. Then she became a household name after performing at the royal wedding.

"It got me a lot of recognition," she said later. "But it was only a wedding and my job was doing opera at the time, so I wasn't into weddings."

Now 74, Kiri reveals she is grateful her career lasted as long as it did. "I have had a 50-year career and a lot of people don't have the luxury of that. It is becoming harder for people to have a career as long.

"We are on the fast track now and everything is disposable. It is like telephones, they make sure the thing dies so you keep buying things. The old ones used to last, but now everything is disposable and I don't want opera to be disposable.

"It is about longevity as we are all going to live until we are 50 or 70."

Performing at Covent Garden in 1971.
Performing at Covent Garden in 1971.

Kiri's career was celebrated in 1982 when she was made a Dame of the British Empire. The British recording industry also gave her a lifetime achievement award in 2010, calling her "one of the most loved sopranos of the past century".

And she has also been made a Companion of Honour in the Queen's Birthday Honour's List. The honour, like many in her career, is not taken lightly.

"I have got so many future projects I want to do for young people," she says.

"I am very proud to be able to help young people.

On stage with the late Luciano Pavarotti in 1976.
On stage with the late Luciano Pavarotti in 1976.

"Everything is disposable now and it is always 'the next star' these days. It is a very difficult industry for people to stay in.

"My secret is being careful with your decision. Never push them. Just give them the advice."

And although she stopped performing the most demanding of her signature opera roles in 2004, Kiri says she is still as sharp as ever when it comes to hearing good music.

She jokes, "My hearing is incredibly good for my age and I have not had any difficulties, but I see people my age going, 'What? What?' But we have always protected ourselves."

Long may Dame Kiri continue.

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