6 Mar 2024

Dame Kiri's 80th birthday, a day of celebration

From Afternoons, 1:35 pm on 6 March 2024
RNZ Concert presenter Clarissa Dunn with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa treasures from RNZ's basement archive.

RNZ Concert presenter Clarissa Dunn with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa treasures from RNZ's basement archive. Photo: Clarissa Dunn

A few weeks ago, I put on a jumper, stuffed a fistful of snacks in my pocket and made a special trip to the cold basement archive at RNZ to find recordings of a true Kiwi icon, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Her 80th birthday was looming, and I was curious to dig up some of her earliest recordings. 

Dame Kiri’s international career coincided with the digital audio revolution in the 1980 and 90s. While there was considerable interest in recording her exquisite voice at the height of its powers, what makes her extensive discography unique, for that generation of artists, is the presence of early recordings made in New Zealand that show the budding beauty of her natural talent and the breadth of her early repertoire. 

In the 1960s, out of necessity, Kiri Te Kanawa sang everything from classical music to pop songs in Auckland nightclubs. Eventually her talent came to the attention of Tony Vercoe at Kiwi Records. Tony, a singer himself, was a graduate of the Royal College of Music. With a gut feeling that her talent would go far, he signed up the teenage singer. She recorded over 50 tracks for the label from 1964 to 1970 and their popularity in NZ was extraordinary, earning her New Zealand’s first Gold Disc for record sales. 

Winner of 1965 Melbourne Sun Aria

Winner of 1965 Melbourne Sun Aria Photo: Supplied

In 1964 she made her first recording, a collection of Māori songs with singer Hohepa Mutu and an instrumental quartet. In December that year she had one of her first recording successes with the ‘Nun’s Chorus’ by Johann Strauss II. It was one of Kiri’s first appearances as a soloist with her teacher’s choir and one of the few occasions on which Sister Mary Leo’s choir was recorded.  

Dame Sister Mary Leo was the principal teacher in the music department attached to the convent school of St Mary’s in Auckland and one of New Zealand’s most renowned singing teachers. The Nun’s Chorus became a much-loved Kiwi classic and Kiri would record it again some 25 years later with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. 

By 1965 Kiri’s voice was becoming known all over New Zealand. She appeared on radio and television and entered and won major competitions in the Pacific, including the Mobil Song Quest. She won the Mobil Song Quest in 1965 on a bitterly cold evening in July and wore woollen trousers under her evening gown to keep warm during her performances in the Dunedin Town Hall.  

Kiri immediately put the £300 prize money towards testing her mettle in the next competition, the Sun Aria in Melbourne. No doubt taking the locals by surprise, she won this too, singing arias from Puccini’s Tosca and Weber’s Der Freischütz. 

In 1966, after a series of farewell concerts across the country, Kiri moved to London to study at the London Opera Centre. A contract with The Royal Opera House Covent Garden followed and in 1971 she gave a sensational debut as the Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. She achieved legendary status almost overnight.  

In the subsequent decades she cemented her reputation as one of the world’s great sopranos and enjoyed a global following. When she performed at the wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in St Paul’s Cathedral, the television broadcast reached an audience of over 600 million. 

She was at the top of her game in 1990 when she decided to come back to New Zealand for a homecoming tour. Kiwi audiences hadn’t heard her since 1984. Her record-breaking outdoor concert in the Auckland Domain attracted a crowd of around 140,000 and raised over $100,000 for charity.  

I was there and was spellbound. She opened the concert by thanking the crowd for sparing the time to come – I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. When she sang Pokarekare Ana towards the end of the concert she literally took this song to new heights, her voice soared through the night sky unaccompanied. It was intoxicatingly beautiful.  

Every New Zealand concert she gave after that I hoped she would perform Pokarekare Ana. I got my chance to hear that magic again in 2000 when I joined Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as a group of 12 young opera singers for her outdoor concerts at The Bowl of Brooklands and a vineyard in Blenheim. To hear her voice spill out across that natural amphitheatre in New Plymouth under a big moon with a hushed audience of thousands holding candles in the dark is a memory I’ll treasure forever.  

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and young opera singers, including Clarissa Dunn, relaxing in Blenheim, 2000.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and young opera singers, including Clarissa Dunn, relaxing in Blenheim, 2000. Photo: Supplied

Happy 80th birthday Dame Kiri. I hope your day is full of fishing and hokey-pokey ice-cream. Thank you for all the beauty and awe you’ve given the world by cultivating and sharing your great gift. Your recordings will remain taonga for generations to come. 

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