The Australians were the last to see Dame Kiri Te Kanawa perform. The acclaimed New Zealand soprano sang at Ballarat near Melbourne last year.

She knew it would be the final curtain but did not let the world know until this week in London when she was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement accolade at the Gramophone Classical Music Awards - the Oscars of classical music - to celebrate her remarkable life's work.

Her explanation was frank. "I don't want to hear my voice - it is in the past," she said.

Fame settled on her in 1971 with sensational performances as The Countess in The Marriage of Figaro and as The Flower Maiden in Parsifal. She went on to perform at every major opera house in the world, and make more than 40 recordings.

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A royal favourite, she sang Handel's Let the Bright Seraphim at the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, a performance seen by an estimated 600 million people - one of the largest TV audiences for a singer in history. In 2006, she sang Happy Birthday to the Queen at the Commonwealth Games in Australia.

She has given back to the art which rewarded her richly, creating the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation to assist the very best young New Zealand singers take their gifts to the highest level through hard work and dedication.

That task helped with her decision to end an illustrious career. "When I'm teaching young singers and hearing beautiful young fresh voices, I don't want to put my voice next to theirs." The opera star hit the right retirement note.