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The timelessness of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, from royal weddings to Rolex ambassador

The legendary opera singer shared her thoughts with BAZAAR on the Coronation and Australian Grand Prix, as an esteemed guest of Rolex.
By Hayley Peppin


IN JUST A FEW weeks time, the world will be watching this century’s biggest royal event so far — King Charles III’s Coronation. While the palace continues to reveal esteemed guests and processional proceedings, one aspect of the historic weekend remains confidential. The global icons performing at the Coronation concert. It’s a history-making performance, which carries insurmountable pressure and obligation — stage anxieties Dame Kiri Te Kanawa knows all too well. To preface, the legendary New Zealand opera singer is not coming out of retirement for a one-time show at the King’s coronation (let’s be frank: she wouldn’t tell me anyway) — but she did perform at the wedding of the-then Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer more than 42 years ago. 

“It was quite frightening, I must say. Because there was much hanging on the timing of that whole situation,” the 79-year-old told Harper’s BAZAAR Australia/New Zealand while visiting Melbourne for the Formula I Australian Rolex Grand Prix. Initially, she thought the royal performance request was a prank. “When I was told I was going to be singing at the wedding, they said ‘Not a word, not a word to be told to anybody.’”

For more than three months, Dame Kiri kept one of the biggest performances of her life to herself — even while searching for the perfect televised outfit (she ended up wearing a bright blue hat and colourful ruffled dress, knowing she’d be filmed from the shoulders up). But when Dame Kiri finally took to the stand at St Paul’s Cathedral on July 29, 1981; she mesmerised the world over with her enchanting soprano voice. To a television audience of over 600 million, Dame Kiri performed ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ from Handel’s Samson while the bride and groom signed the register. Just a year later, her talent was royally acknowledged — and perhaps thanked, regarding her performance at St Paul’s — when she was elevated to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The rest, you could say, was dramatic history. 


For 54 years, the Gisborne-born singer dedicated her life to the stage — performing at iconic global venues from La Scala in Milan to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The latter theatre in London, being the very setting which both began and concluded her stellar career. She’s even played another opera legend for the screen, portraying Dame Nellie Melba during the “amazing experience” of an episode on Downton Abbey. “They were all wonderful times. I loved my job but once I left it — I realised how stressful it had been over the years,” Dame Kiri began, noting she never experienced downtime nor dedicated self-care. “It took me about two years to sort of figure out how to calm down, as the demands are so great. That’s the problem. You’re expected to do something extraordinary.”


And many times over (one could say nightly), she was expected to perform miracles. At just 25 years old she secured the lead in Figaro held in Covent Garden, having saved all her “pocket money” from local competitions at home to move to the big smoke. Then a few years later, she was cast as Desdemona in Otello, “a major opera” she told me, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. She was given just two hours notice “on a nasty, snowy day.” When she finally treated herself to a holiday for a mere few weeks, she “nearly choked to death trying to get her voice back.” Dame Kiri explained the short time away from singing sent her muscles to sleep, so to speak. 

“From that point on, I would work a solid two hours every morning while on holiday so I could come back and still sing. I made sure I didn’t make the same mistake again.”

Dame Kiri in the Royal Opera House, wearing the Lady-Datejust 26. | COURTESY OF ROLEX

Having pushed her mind, body and vocal chords to its absolute limits, Dame Kiri realised her tough — and predominantly solo — opera experience could be of assistance to the next generation. In 2004, she established The Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation to help nurture outstanding young New Zealand talent with judicious mentoring, financial support and career assistance. Even during the COVID-19 lockdown, her foundation offered 18 Kiwis £800 per month which “saved them and kept them alive” while they were out of work. It’s a charitable calling all made possible courtesy of Rolex. If you didn’t already know, Dame Kiri is one of Rolex’s longest-standing Testimonee’s and first-ever cultural Testimonee — a role she assumed in 1976. 

“I decided to leave money for a foundation when I died,” Dame Kiri recalled during a light-bulb moment on her 60th birthday. “But someone said it’d be better if I was alive to help the singers. So that’s what I did. I stayed alive and raised money to help singers!” 

Having formed a strong relationship with the family-minded and philanthropic Swiss watchmaker, Dame Kiri called on them for support — which they did “very generously.” Throughout her 47-year partnership, Rolex has gifted her a plethora of “stunningly beautiful” pieces from the evening-style Cellini to the iconic Daytona watch (her husband and son are also fans of the particular prestigious timepiece) and connected her to other Testimonees. One of her closest friends of the brand includes former British Formula One racing driver, Sir Jackie Stewart. While it would seem a star of the road and a queen (dame) of the stage would have little to talk about, their friendship is one which has spanned more than 25 years.

As Dame Nellie Melba for Downton Abbey.
With her order of the Companions of Honour. | GETTY IMAGES

Dame Kiri recalled having the “funniest” times with Sir Jackie, which included seeing him drive his car over the bank during a Country Pursuit race — “the famous racing car driver, and he’s gone right over the edge!” — while admiring his selfless philanthropic work. Like Dame Kiri, Sir Jackie was also in Melbourne during the Grand Prix on March 31, hoping to raise awareness for Race Against Dementia. His charity, also supported by Rolex. “He’s the most amazing person,” Dame Kiri said of Sir Jackie’s efforts to fund dementia research, following his wife’s diagnosis more than seven years ago. “It [dementia research] is now being known throughout the world because of what he’s doing.”

ROLEXES are like the CROWNING GLORY of who YOU are.

As for how she felt about being on his turf during the Grand Prix, Dame Kiri said as a keen driver she was excited. She often makes the four hour road trip to Auckland in one of her five cars. “I’ve never seen anything like it [Grand Prix]. It’s motor racing at the highest level and I can’t imagine what I will see, but I’m looking forward to watching and hearing the ‘brrrrrrr!’” Dame Kiri said, mimicking the instantly recognisable whine of an F1 engine.

Despite proudly donning her dazzling white gold and platinum Rolex for the affair sponsored by the watchmaker, she admitted to locking her “crowning glories” away for safe-keeping and wearing only for special occasions. “I’ve not lost a single one,” she told me. Could a particularly special Rolex occasion be, say — the Coronation? Yes, I did directly ask whether a royal performance was on the cards. I had to make sure of it. “If I was age 35 rather than 79? Absolutely, that’d be just fun!” she joked. But anything’s possible. Need I remind you she kept her royal wedding appearance a secret for months.