It is eight years since William Price King joined Smorgasbord to share music across the genres. It is six years since we have featured some of the music legends and delighted to showcase them again in 2022.
Welcome to the next series of musical legends and this week we are delighted to feature Kiri Te Kanawa, the renowned soprano from New Zealand who took the world by storm in the 1960s, and continues to inspire and delight audiences with rare but outstanding performances.
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa – The Early Years
Kiri Te Kanawa has a stunning voice and has received critical acclaim from her work in Opera and also in popular music.
Kiri Te Kanawa had a challenging start in life in 1944 when she was born into a family who were unable to financially support another child. Her birth name is Claire Mary Rawstron and she originates from the town of Gisborne on the coast of New Zealand. Her father was a native Maori and her mother from European extraction and she was adopted at only a month old by Tom and Nell Te Kanawa who were of similar backgrounds. Her new parents named her Kiri which is the Maori word for ‘bell’.
As an only child, Kiri enjoyed the attention of both her parents. She accompanied her father on his fishing trips, and on one occasion nearly drowned, when the boat overturned and she was trapped underneath. Thankfully her father was able to dive down and rescue her. Her mother, who played piano, provided the entertainment in the household as there was no television. Kiri recalls that she was singing from a very early age with performances on the purpose built mini stage, complete with curtains. Her mother heard something very special in Kiri’s voice and told her that she had a vision of her performing at the London’s Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
It became Nell Te Kanawa’s mission to turn that vision into a reality, and over the next few years there were to be many changes in the family’s circumstances. It was a monumental challenge to take this young girl with raw talent to the stages of the most famous opera houses in the world.. Kiri Te Kanawa is quoted as saying, “the reasons that I’m here today is because of the sacrifice of my parents.”
As we have discovered in the previous posts on classical artists, music in the home has played a vital role in developing an initial talent and love of music.. But, the second most important element of a successful career, is in the commitment of teachers in the early days at school, to take that talent further.
After a course in business school where Kiri learned shorthand and typing she took a job as a receptionist. This left her evenings free to perform and to study singing with Dame Sister Mary Leo who had tutored her at St Mary’s College in Auckland. She began to sing in the popular musicals of the day such as The Sound of Music that were being staged in Auckland as well as performing in local cabarets. It is clear that this following song in particular held a place in her heart.
Kiri te Kanawa gives a fantastic rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” (Rogers and Hammerstein). She embodies the grace and style for which she became famous.Dame Kiri Te Kanawa – Topic
At age sixteen and with several recordings released, it appeared that Kiri Te Kanawa was destined to a career as a popular singer. This however was not what her mother had envisaged for her talented daughter, who persuaded The Maori Trust Foundation to support Kiri while she studied further.
With her living expenses covered it offered Kiri the freedom to continue to study classical music with Sister Mary Leo with more focus and to enter the singing competitions locally. At sixteen she won the Auckland Competition and in 1962 she was runner up in the more prestigious Mobile Song quest winning the competition in 1965 aged twenty-one.
It was time to expand her audience and in 1965 Kiri Te Kanawa entered aria competitions of both the Sydney and Melbourne Suns, two of the most important events in Australia at the time. She came second in the Sydney competition but won the Melbourne event singing “Leise, leise” (sung in English as “Softly Singing”) from Weber’s Der Freischützwon.
This was to be a pivotal time in Kiri’s career and at age only 21, with her prize money and a scholarship from the New Zealand government, she set off to England where she would sing in her first opera.
In 1966 Kiri enrolled at the London Opera Centre and would study under renowned vocal coach Vera Rozsa.
Image – web.archive
Vera Rozsa was a Hungarian opera singer and vocal coach who had enjoyed a successful career in her Budapest until the tragic years of the holocaust. Tragically her first husband was interned and died as di many of her family and friends. She herself was in hiding until the end of the war, narrowly escaping capture by the Nazis. Following the war she was soloist for the Budepest Opera and later the Vienna State Opera. Unfortunately, due to her years in hiding during the war, part of one lung had to be removed which was to severely impact her ability to perform in operas. She visited a specialist in Brussels, who told her that she would never be able to sing more than nine or ten minutes at a time: as a result, she developed expertise in a breathing technique, that not only enabled her to continue singing, although not in demanding opera roles, but to make singing easier for many future students.
Vera married a former British army intelligence officer in 1954 and came to the UK to live. She continued to perform for a period of time before achieving acclaim as an outstanding vocal coach, teaching first at the Royal Manchester School of Music for ten years before moving to London. She held master classes around the world and also was a judge at many of the most important competitions globally.
It was after a master class at the centre by Australian conductor, Richard Bonynge that he identified that Kiri Te Kanawa, who was considered to be a mezzo soprano was a soprano. The basic division of female voices is Contralto (low) Mezzo-soprano (middle) and Soprano (high) and this can influence the roles within an opera. The tendency is for the mezzo sopranos to play a secondary role to a soprano and this was therefore quite an impactful development.
The time that Kiri Te Kanawa spent being taught by Vera Rozsa led to an improvement in not just her intonation, diction, interpretation and acting, but also allowed for her naturally lighter voice to be developed.
Kiri first appeared on stage as the Second Lady in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, as well as in performances of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas in December 1968 at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. She also sang the title role in Donizett’s Anna Bolena.
Here is Kiri Te Kanawa with Thomas Allen – KiriOnLine – Dame Kiri Te Kanawa
The period from 1969 to 1970 was a pivotal one in several respects. She left the London Opera Centre and began her new career, at first singing small travesti roles, as in Handel’s Alcina at Royal Festival Hall, before her major triumph of 1969 as Ellen in Rossini’s La donna del lago at the Camden Festival.
After her success at the Camden Festival as Ellen, she was offered the role of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro after an audition of which the conductor, Colin Davis, said, “I couldn’t believe my ears. I’ve taken thousands of auditions, but it was such a fantastically beautiful voice.”
Praise for her Idamante in Mozart’s Idomeneo led to an offer of a three-year contract as junior principal at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden where she made her debut as Xenia in Boris Godunov and a Flower Maiden in Parsifal in 1970, fulfilling her mother’s dream.
The performance that began her stratospheric rise was as Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in December of 1971.
One of the best scenes from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” comes in act three when the Countess, Kiri te Kanawa sits Susanna, Ileana Cotrubas down at her desk with pen in hand as they plot out a conspiracy against her husband in order to trick him. Kiri Te Kanawa is ravishing and her phrasing, perfect, in this duet, “Sull’aria,” (A little song on the breeze).
Buy the music of Kiri Te Kanawa: Amazon
William Price King is an American jazz singer, crooner, and composer.
His interest in music began at an early age when he studied piano and clarinet in high school. At Morehouse College in Atlanta where he grew up, he sang in the Glee Club and studied classical music. After graduation he went off to the Yale School of Music where he earned a Masters degree. From there he journeyed to New York where he created a jazz trio ‘Au Naturel’ which performed in some of the hottest venues in Manhattan including gigs on Broadway and the famous ‘Rainbow Room.’ These gigs opened doors for performances in Montreal and a European tour.
While touring Europe he met a lovely French lady, Jeanne Maïstre, who, a year later became his wife. King left the group ‘Au Naturel’ and settled in the south of France where he started a new life on the French Riviera, opening his own music school – the “Price King Ecole Internationale de Chant.” He has had the pleasure over the years of seeing many of his students excel as singers on a professional level, and some going on to become national celebrities. He continues to coach young singers today, in his spare time.
As always William would love to receive your feedback… thanks Sally.