December 27, 1982 12:00 PM

The leading ladies of grand opera down the years have been a luxuriantly histrionic sort, their precious throats swathed in heavy scarves against the elements, their regal selves arrayed in jewels and furs and turbans. But the opera star who this year came into the first magnitude represents a distinctly new breed. Kiri Te Kanawa, 38, a big (5’9″), raucous, earthy soprano from New Zealand, loves wearing jeans, knocks back beer from the can, plays a fierce round of golf, and fixes her own car, a Renault. “Find out how it’s done and then have a go yourself,” she has said. This is one can-do diva.

Even the most unspoiled of vocal prodigies could be forgiven some giddiness after the laurels Kiri has won in the past 18 months. She was picked personally by Prince Charles, who raved about her “marvelous voice,” to sing at his wedding. She was proclaimed a dame (equivalent to a knight) by Queen Elizabeth II last summer. In September she sang the coveted opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. Wherever she goes critics swoon, and Sir Colin Davis, musical director of London’s Royal Opera, flatly calls hers “a perfect voice.” Yet even through all the royal hoopla (“Whoo, it was such an honor!” she gushed girlishly of the royal wedding gig), she remained as intensely family-centered as ever. After she miscarried in 1975, she and her husband, Desmond, adopted Toni, now 6, and Thomas, 3. Today, she says proudly, “I’ve sung the most demanding roles in opera, but they don’t make the demands on you of a child.” When she is performing abroad, she calls her husband daily at home in Surrey, England, although she adds: “I go out with men all the time, and Des goes out with women. Dinner with someone is quite harmless.”

Kiri traces her lack of affectation to her homeland. Born out of wedlock to a European mother and Maori father, she was adopted by another couple, also a European mother and Maori father, in Gisborne, New Zealand. When she was 12, her parents moved to Auckland so she could have singing lessons. “I just did what I was told,” Kiri says. “I’m not a great questioner.” At 21, she won an Australian vocal competition, but when she went to study at the London Opera Centre, she stood out for her laziness.

“I was completely undisciplined,” Kiri has admitted. Then, in 1967, she married Australian engineer Desmond Park, and with love came diligence. She has been acclaimed ever since her 1971 Covent Garden triumph in The Marriage of Figaro and her 1974 Met debut in Otello, when she subbed for Teresa Stratas on three hours’ notice.

For Kiri, 1983 will be a banner year. Back home, in January, she will be formally invested as a dame by New Zealand’s Governor-General, and in February the Met is mounting a new production of Richard Strauss’ Arabella for her. Does she fear her rivals’ jealousy? Not at all. “I never have problems with other prima donnas,” Kiri has observed, eyes twinkling. “After all, Maoris eat their rivals.”

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