Dame Kiri: Nuns beat me

Dame Kiri: Nuns beat me


norman lebrecht

January 19, 2016

The dowager dame has been telling kids back home that she was beaten by brides of Christ – and it toughened her up.

The opera star stunned a Whanganui audience with the revelation during a speaking event with opera singer and Baptist Church minister, Rodney McCann, the Whanganui Chronicle reported.

“I am as tough as I am today because from age 12, when I was at a convent school in Auckland, I was beaten by the nuns,” she told a crowd of several hundred fans.

Not sure what her message is here. Tick one of the boxes below:

kiri nuns chorus
Children need to be whipped

Masochism is underrated

Opera is not all beauty

I should have gone to church more

I should never have gone to that school

You kids are so soft today. We used to get whipped before breakfast, forced to play nude rugby all morning, no lunch, arpeggios all afternoon, hakas at tea and cold showers before bed. That’s how I got where I am.


  • Frankster says:

    I see that racial issues never entered your mind. Lucky you.

  • Emil Archambault says:

    And where exactly does she say that she approves of it?

    It is a well-known fact that, in some cases, rough life experiences (growing up in poor areas, death of parents, etc.) may have the effect of making people ‘tougher’. Yet, I find very few people who suggest that kids should suffer. As for your fun little game, it’s rather distasteful, implying that Kiri suggests kids should be beaten.

    If you’re looking for a clue, note the place where it is referred to as “abuse” in the article.

  • Eric says:

    Yeah yeah…and she had to walk to the store barefoot, in the snow, uphill both ways…..


  • John Borstlap says:

    Maybe this revelation provides an idea for Regietheater directors for Les Dialoques des Carmelites?

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    It certainly didn’t help her timekeeping.

  • V.Lind says:

    The article does not seem to take much interest in this aspect, and its tone suggests that the reference by KTK was essentially peripheral to her main point.

    For all we know, she could be referring to getting a few stokes of the strap on her hands for miscreancy. It does not sound as if she was a victim of the sort of residential schools that have prompted public inquiries in Canada and Australia and, in the former, have led to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after a public apology to the First Nations populations in Parliament.

    Sounds a bit more like British public school survivors reminiscing on the various benefits of stodgy food, cold baths, and other disciplines on their later lives.

  • Christy says:

    I am not a Kiwi, so don’t have any knowledge, but I have two NZ-native friends who tell me that it is well known that many Maori children during that time were brutalized in some private institutions. Perhaps Dame Kiri was not one of them; we can’t know from her brief comment in passing. But perhaps she was, in fact, one of those who had to deal with others trying to “beat the savage out” of her. This was, after all, at a time when the Maori language was forbidden as the language of savages.

    Because it is so unclear what exactly happened, the dismissive tone of this and some other articles is unfortunate.

    • V.Lind says:

      Similar to the situations on Canada and Australia, then. Living in the former, most of us are very familiar with the tales of the survivors — and the relations of some who did not survive. It has been a theme that has dominated the national conversation for the past few years, and has been prominently represented in the arts, from fiction to poetry to dance to music. And we have heard similar stories from Australia, and, though fewer, some from New Zealand. (The British colonialists are not the only guilty parties: treatment of the native populations of South America by the conquering Spanish and Portuguese were little better).

      In Canada, despite the search for reconciliation, the stories of survivors of residential schools are not told in the breezy tone used in the cited article to quote Ms. Te Kanawa. While I believe the survivors genuinely seek to forgive those who tried to erase their native identities, their languages, their culture, through coerced removal from their families, indoctrination, bullying, beating and in some cases sexual abuse, there is nonetheless in all their testimony a tone of — very legitimate — residual bitterness and grievance.

      From what Ms. Te Kanawa says, she was not taken by force from her home, rather sent somewhere that her talent could be nourished. That the nuns were not immune to corporal punishment does not surprise me: I am younger than her by some distance and even in my day some of the nuns at my school occasionally gave the strap, or spoke in a bullying and aggressive manner to someone perceived to have transgressed. It was not sufficiently damaging to give anyone much pause. Her story sounds much more to me like the public school comparison I made above. No-one I have heard interviewed, or in clips from the T&R Commission hearings, has ever declared that their treatment in the residential schools (which were not, by the way, all Catholic by any means) made them “tougher.” Certainly not as if it were a good thing.

    • Tommo says:

      Being strapped was an everyday occurrence in NZ Catholic schools who also practiced collective punishment as a means of breaking the spirit and establishing control over ‘unruly’ pupils. The Christian Brothers were experts at it and many of the abused left their ‘teaching’ establishments when they could legally at 15.

      • V.Lind says:

        The Christian Brothers (with whom my school was not associated) are infamous in Canada because of a notorious physical and sexual abuse scandal at Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland some years ago — late 80s into early 90s. ( A superior TV mini-series, The Boys of St. Vincent, was made based upon this scandal).

        They seem to be a a bad lot. Must have taken courses in abusive behaviour.

        • Tommo says:

          The Christian Brothers excelled themselves in physical and sexual abuse on orphaned pupils in the remote part of Western Australia known as Bindoon. Boys were used as slaves in the construction of a college in the Australian outback some of whom died and others, who survived the abuses, were left with serious mental problems. The horrible truth of Christian Brother torture, rape and beatings was exposed in a film Oranges and Sunshine in 2010 but only now, and after a Royal Commission investigation, have the Catholic Church thought it necessary to pay some compensation to those so badly treated.

    • Mere Kiwi says:

      I AM a Kiwi, and went to a school near the one Dame Kiri attended in Auckland at around the same time. So I do have experiential knowledge, and I find many of the ill-informed, generalised comments here hurtful and offensive. It is true that corporal punishment in NZ schools was legal at that time, and we all experienced it, to a lesser or greater degree. Corporal punishment was not banned in New Zealand schools until several decades later. BUT to suggest that ‘the Maori language was forbidden at that time as the language of savages’ is just plain wrong. This happened at a much earlier time in New Zealand’s history; by the 60s, when Dame Kiri and I were at school, Maori songs, greetings and so on were taught in most schools, and nowadays Maori language has an important place in the New Zealand curriculum.

      I’m disappointed that Norman Lebrecht quoted only a small fragment of Dame Kiri’s talk. Taken out of context in this way, the words invite misinterpretation. What this his motive? To elicit considered discussion, or ill-informed, stereotypical generalisations? This piece – and many of the comments which have followed it – are unfair to Dame Kiri, and to all those New Zealanders who are growing frankly tired of reading negative comments about people from a number of different ethnicities, in a publication which I would have expected to have had higher standards than this.

      • Christy says:

        Thank you for your response, and I’m sorry that my comments upset you. Of course, that wasn’t my intention. I was relating what I was told. Moreover, I didn’t question what I was told about the Maori language because I have seen Dame Kiri herself in numerous interviews talk about not being allowed to speak Maori. She went so far as to say in one piece that she was severely punished in grammar school once for saying something in Maori. I believe she was in school in the 40s and 50s not the 60s – she left school at 15 or 16, so 1959 or 1960. Perhaps that might be the reason?

        Regardless, please accept my apologies. I don’t think anyone believes the situation today is as it was in Dame Kiri’s youth – I certainly don’t. NZ has a wonderful reputation and I personally hope to visit one day.

  • CDH says:

    And in what sense is Dame Kiri a “dowager”?

    Just askin’.

    • Paul Wright says:

      Although ‘dowager’ refers strictly to a woman whose title (e.g. ‘duchess’) derives from that of her late husband, the term is often, as here, used to denote any dignified, elderly titled lady, particularly one of fame or wealth. So (for once, let it be said), NL’s choice of language is entirely appropriate here.

  • George Porter says:

    Government law and policy, including punishment of students in schools for speaking Māori, contributed to this outcome [a dramatic loss of fluency] . While such punishment ceased to be the official policy of the Department of Education head office in the 1930s, it continued to be practised in schools in some areas for decades. A
    mid-1970s survey of Māori language use found that 40% of the adult
    respondents had been punished personally for speaking Māori when they were at school, in some cases as late as the 1950s and 1960s.


  • John Borstlap says:

    It is stunning to see how Europeans thought that bringing civilization to ‘underdeveloped’ parts of the globe, meant exploitation, bullying, suppression, and violence. The mind boggles.