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Source: New Zealand Governor General

E nga mana, e nga reo, e nga iwi o te motu e huihui nei, tēnei aku mihi nui ki a koutou. Kia ora tātou katoa.

Dame Kiri, Mr Kevin Foulcer, all your friends and family – tēnā koutou katoa. I am honoured to host this evening’s celebration of Dame Kiri’s 80th birthday, and to welcome you all here to Government House Auckland. 

I also wish to acknowledge all our other distinguished guests in attendance – including from the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation – and some of whom I know have travelled some distance to be here for this very special occasion. 

The tributes made to Dame Kiri over these past weeks have shown how profoundly your life and achievements have touched so many across Aotearoa and around the world.

It was the longtime and deeply beloved American broadcaster Fred Rogers who said: ‘The thing I remember best about the successful people I’ve met over the years, is their obvious delight in what they’re doing, which seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They simply love what they’re doing, and they love it in front of others.’

I can think of few who better embody this sentiment than Dame Kiri. To witness one of Dame Kiri’s performances is to know that you are in the presence of a true master: an artist who is capable of conveying the most profound emotions through performance, and who takes great joy in sharing that gift with her audiences.

To list Dame Kiri’s achievements would take much longer than I have, but I do wish to name a few. Her talent identified from a young age, Dame Kiri left her home of Gisborne at the age of 12 to train in Auckland under the legendary tutelage of Sister Mary Leo. By the time she was 20, Dame Kiri had won all the major vocal prizes in the South Pacific.

Showing immense courage, and with little support around her, Dame Kiri moved to England to begin the next stage of her formal training. With her debut performance in Figaro at the Royal Opera House, a star was born. In the years that followed, she would sing with all of the world’s most acclaimed orchestras and conductors, across the world’s most famous stages – captivating and moving audiences as she went.

Dame Kiri would be appointed a Dame Commander of the British Empire, invested with the Order of Australia, and conferred with honorary doctorates from universities around the world. Back home, she became a member of the Order of New Zealand – New Zealand’s highest civilian honour – and was named Iconic New Zealander of the Year.

Few will forget Dame Kiri’s beautiful performance of Pokarekare Ana as the sun rose for the first time into the new millennium. However, it was Dame Kiri’s performance at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, to a viewing audience of over 600 million, that has become indelibly etched in New Zealand’s history – and remains, I would argue, this country’s most famous vocal performance. 

To achieve such remarkable success over such a sustained period is only possible through the kind of extraordinary hard work, discipline, and sacrifice few of us can imagine: countless hours of focused training and meticulous preparation, and the utmost care given to physical and emotional wellbeing.

However, Dame Kiri’s gift goes beyond her technical mastery, rigorous discipline, and unique vocal quality. It is my belief that you cannot be a truly great artist without also being a great person. The fullness, intensity, and generosity with which Dame Kiri has lived her life, emanates in your performances over the years, and has cemented your status as a true New Zealand icon.

Throughout Dame Kiri’s life and career, you have always known that you elevate your art by first elevating those around you. We see that legacy continued in your commitment to nurturing the next generation of singing talent through the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation – underscoring your own generosity and clear understanding that talent alone, without support and encouragement, can only go so far. 

When I think of Dame Kiri, your remarkable life and career, and the legacy you have created, I think of the words of the late Dr Piri Sciascia: ‘He toi whakairo, he mana tangata. Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity.’ 

As Governor-General, on behalf of all New Zealanders, I wish to thank you, Dame Kiri, for all that you’ve done for our country: for making us so proud. I wish you many happy returns.

Kia ora huihui tātou katoa.