KIRI TE KANAWA is not a name familiar to most pop music fans, including those of Elvis Presley. Nonetheless, she is one of the most famous opera singers in the world and should be known to Elvis fans. She was born in New Zealand in 1944 into a family that was too poor to be able to afford to even keep her, making her family considerably poorer than the Presleys during Elvis’ youth.
She was adopted and raised by an Irish mother and Maori father. Fortunately, when the young Kiri started warbling, her adoptive parents encouraged her. At the age of six, she performed on a local radio broadcast.
“After winning the John Court Aria Prize and the Mobil Song Quest, Kiri shot to stardom in New Zealand and was accepted without audition to study at the London Opera Centre in 1965. After appearing in little known operas such as Delibes’ Le Roi l’a dit and Wolf-Ferrari’s The Inquisitive Woman, Kiri Te Kanawa received critical praise as Idamantes in Mozart’s Idomeneo.
Soon after, Kiri was granted a three-year contract as a junior principal at Covent Garden. Kiri Te Kanawa came to international attention singing the role of Xenia in Boris Godunov and the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro.” (Bach Cantatas)
Kiri Te Kanawa was chosen to sing at the marriage of the Prince of Wales to the Lady Diana Spencer.
In 1966, she released her first album. She has been a successful opera singer, recording artist, and actress for more than fifty years. Among her many distinctions are honorary doctorates from Dundee, Durham, Auckland, Nottingham, and Oxford Universities.
In 1982, she was made Dame Commander of the British Empire.
And what’s that got to do with Elvis the Pelvis? In 2007, Michael Parkinson interviewed Kiri Te Kanawa on his BBC television show. He asked her what she thought was the greatest voice she’d ever heard, probably expecting her to name Pavarotti or Callas.
Instead, she replied, “The young Elvis Presley, without any doubt.”
In 1970, Kiri released the album A RAINBOW IN THE SKY (Kiwi Records SLC-96), where she gave her interpretation of contemporary pop songs. this included Top 40 hits like Both Sides Now, Little Green Apples, and Yesterday. The cover art presented her as a pop star, not a “serious” opera singer on the rise.
Without any doubt
At least that is how Ian Gillian of Deep Purple on the Blabbermouth website titled “Elvis Presley ‘Was The Greatest Singer That Ever Lived.” There Gillian claimed that Dame Te Kanawa had named Elvis as the greatest voice she’d ever heard. Unfortunately, that statement is attributed to an interview that Gillian gave Classic Rock (“The Home Of High Voltage Rock’N’Roll”).
Type “Ian Gillian” into the search function there and it took me to the Louder website (“Together we’re Louder”), which has a terrible search feature that didn’t help me find the Gillian article. Meaning I wasn’t able to find an original source for Gillian’s statement.
Next, I visited KiriOnLine, the Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Fan Site page on Facebook. There I left a private message which was returned by the site’s moderator, who prefers to remain anonymous. It read:
“Apparently she did say this in her interview with Parky in 1998. It’s the show that also had Dame Edna and Jaques Villeneuve as guests. But I only have parts of the actual video in which she’s talking with the other guests, not the solo portion of her interview. It’s one I’ve been trying to get a complete copy of for years. When I do, I’ll post it on our YouTube channel.”
So, I am treating the moderator as an expert here and taking her word here that, in fact, Dame Te Kanawa did, in, fact, name Elvis Presley as the greatest voice she’d ever heard.
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this age was lifted from an article titled “Downton Abbey Goes Operatic” on the Access Online website. In the series’ fourth season, Te Kanawa appears as Nellie Melba, a star of the opera in the early 20th century. To visit the KiriOnLine fan page on Facebook, click HERE.
POSTSCRIPTUALLY, for more on world-renowned opera singers who were fans of Elvis, consider reading “Why The ‘Blue Note’ Makes Crossing Over Attempts by Classical Singers and Pop Singers a Losing Proposition” by Alain Rozan. He attributes complimentary statements to Placido Domingo and Bryn Terfel.
Finally, thanks to Vernon Smith who jumpstarted this article with a comment on this blog on January 7, 2020.