Barbara Rowes
February 15, 1982 12:00 PM

Prince Charles admired her from the Royal Box at Covent Garden. Occasionally he would send down messages—could he come say hello? They were fleeting encounters in which he asked all the questions and Kiri Te Kanawa, 35, observes, “One was never quite sure what to say.” There was no such hesitation when, five weeks after the public announcement that Charles was to marry Lady Diana Spencer, the New Zealand soprano was asked to sing at the wedding. She immediately replied: “Terrific. I’ll do it.” Then she reconsidered. “My God!” she moaned. “I won’t be able to see the wedding on television.”

She managed both—there were monitors showing the ceremony near the choir. And the royal guests and 650 million TV watchers around the world were dazzled by Te Kanawa’s shimmering rendition of Handel’s three-minute aria Let the Bright Seraphim. The music was Charles’ choice, though Te Kanawa initially thought “something more reverent” might be appropriate. Her performance delighted the prince, who reportedly exclaimed, “Listen. We must listen to the singer.”

Now American audiences can hear “the singer” (whose Maori name is pronounced tuh-KON-a-wa) at the Metropolitan Opera. She has signed a contract through 1985, is appearing this winter in six performances of Mozart’s Così fan tutte and, in acknowledgment of her position as the Met’s newest prima donna, will open next fall’s season in Der Rosenkavalier with Luciano Pavarotti.

Te Kanawa has undeniable presence and a voice that brings audiences to their feet cheering. After her London debut in The Marriage of Figaro in 1971, Financial Times critic Andrew Porter (now writing for the New Yorker) exclaimed: “Such a Countess as I have never heard before, not at Covent Garden, nor Salzburg or Vienna.” Her Met debut three years later as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello (as a last-minute substitute for ailing Teresa Stratas) was again a triumph.

The Met pursued her, but Kiri had little interest then in making the tiring flights from her home in Surrey, England. She and Desmond Park, an Australian mining engineer whom she married in 1967 (“I was attracted by his calmness”), had found they could never have a child. “I had everything money could buy,” she recalls. “Yet there was something lacking.” Kiri had no misgivings about adoption. “I was adopted myself,” she explains. “The man and woman who raised me are my parents. I never thought of them in any other way.”

To avoid fuss, Kiri told no one for months about the “wee gorgeous blob,” Antonia, whom they adopted in 1976 as an infant. “It was a great shock to my system,” she admits. “I was doing performances and rushing home to administer the 2 a.m. bottle.” In 1979 the family was rounded out by a baby boy, now 2½ and named Thomas after Kiri’s adoptive father. The diva vowed to raise both children “as my parents raised me.”

Kiri grew up in the small seaport of Gisborne, New Zealand. Descended from a legendary warrior of the Maoris, New Zealand’s original Polynesian inhabitants, her adoptive father, Thomas Te Kanawa, was a gas tank installer. Her Irish Catholic mother, Heleanor, was related to Sir Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Like her adoptive parents, her natural ones were Maori and white. Beyond that information, Kiri will not discuss the circumstances of her adoption at all.

As a youngster she developed what she terms her “no bullshit” attitude, one that even now causes raised eyebrows in the opera world. She can be tough, rough and earthy. “New Zealanders are solid and practical,” Kiri notes. “If you are hungry, you catch yourself a fish. I learned to fix cars and still can.” She never graduated from high school. “The children in the convent were cruel because I was different,” she has said. “I was the only Maori and they picked me to pieces.”

When she was 11 the family moved to Auckland so that Kiri could take singing lessons. In her late teens she was discovered in Australia’s prestigious Melbourne Sun aria competition by James Robertson, director of the London Opera Center. He invited her to study in Britain. “My parents sacrificed just about everything for me,” says Kiri. “My mother would cry on the telephone, ‘Please come home. You’ve done it.’ But I’d say, ‘No, Mummy. I can’t stop now.’ She always said I’d sing at Covent Garden. She died just a month after I made my debut there in 1971.”

Home these days is a pseudo-Tudor house where Desmond, the children and their nanny are waiting out Kiri’s New York engagement. Two weeks before she came to the Met, they holidayed together, bypassing their vacation home in Portugal for Tampa, Fla. Why Tampa? “Well,” explains Kiri, “we wanted to stay at Disney World. But they were full up. Tampa was as close as we could get to Space Mountain.”

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