Returning to my roots: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s te reo Māori journey

By Jessica Tyson

After five decades of forging a successful international singing career, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has returned home to Aotearoa and she’s keen to reconnect to her culture by learning te reo Māori.

“The saddest thing when I left New Zealand was that Māori was not spoken. My father was never allowed to speak Māori,” says Dame Kiri, whose rendition of Pokarekare Ana has become a classic.

“Now of course it's allowed, and it's absolutely wonderful that all these young people can speak their own language. I’m very sad that I can’t speak it because we were blocked at the time.”

But since she has settled into her new home in the Bay of Islands, Aotearoa's most famous soprano has been thinking about learning te reo Māori.

“I will do in my own way. I'm not sure that it will go in my 77-year-old head but I certainly will try. I listen a lot to Māori Television to see how it is even, even the sort of greetings and how everyone speaks it.”

Dame Kiri returned home to spend more time with her three-year-old grandson, who she refers to as “my Luther”.

Happily retired

“My main focus is to enjoy my life. I’m living in the most beautiful area by the sea.”

Dame Kiri, of Ngāti Maniapoto, was knighted in 1982 for services to opera.

“I don't look at myself as being a dame. I just look at myself as my mother and father's adopted daughter that they gave everything to. The chances I've been given have been through my parents who gave and sacrificed everything for the career that I now have.”

Dame Kiri has retired from singing and doesn’t perform at all. It’s a career that made her an international star and she doesn’t miss it.

“I’ve been asked to sing many times but I have no intention. I’m now 77 and voices tire after a certain age. So, I think at 77, that’s enough.”

These days, Dame Kiri is focused on mentoring the next generation of opera singers through her Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation.

Mentoring protégés

Since its launch in 2004, the foundation has provided financial and moral support to emerging talent – including Dame Kiri’s protégé, Phillip Rhodes.

“Everyone gave up on him. I just adore him and I stuck with him for years and years. Everyone said ‘Kiri you know, is this going to work?’

“I believed in him. He's a strong character and as it's happened, he's the most admired student. You want people who have come out of the most awful circumstances, who have struggled in all sorts of ways. This is not an alone job. You need a team to support you.”

Dame Kiri appeared on Te Ngākau Tapatahi, a show profiling Māori dames and knights. 

The new series from the Māori Television newsroom is running this week on Māori Television at 12pm. Find the first five episodes on Māori+ now and the full series from Sunday, January 23.