Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's claim she was "beaten by nuns" during her schooling has been met with mixed response.

Dame Kiri told an audience of hundreds at Wanganui Collegiate School on Friday she was beaten by nuns during her schooling.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: I was beaten by the nuns as a child

"I'm tough ... I'm tough because I have had to be," she said.


Dame Kiri, who is of Maori and European descent, was adopted as a baby by a Gisborne family and attended St Mary's College for girls to study under acclaimed singing coach Dame Sister Mary Leo.

Dame Sister Mary Leo was a New Zealand nun who was best known for training some of the world's finest sopranos, including Dame Kiri, Dame Malvina Major, and Dame Heather Begg.

Dame Kiri did not say Sister Mary Leo or anyone else at St Mary's had beaten her.

But she did describe facing the demanding Sister Mary Leo and the ambitions of her mother, who had recognised her remarkable talent, as like "being locked between two tigers".

"You have to be tough in the opera world or you are not going to make it. Just because you can sing an aria does not make you an opera singer."

The comments may explain Dame Kiri's strong words on Friday morning to five of the promising young students at this year's opera summer school, however.

The students were about to perform a televised masterclass when Dame Kiri complained about aspects of their behaviour that morning. It left one of them visibly upset but she was able to compose herself in time to perform for the cameras.

Dame Kiri fair to students

New Zealand Opera School director Jonathan Alver said he didn't think Dame Kiri's comments to students were out of line or unfair.


"The word 'harsh' is too harsh," he said. "She was explaining to students that she has had a tough road to get to where she has.

"The industry is tough; that's the reality. Dame Kiri had high expectations of the students, just as they had high expectations of themselves because they had the opportunity to perform to their hero."

The select group of 20 promising opera singers were aged between 19 and 31.

Beatings at schools in distant past

Catholic Diocese of Auckland spokeswoman Lyndsay Freer said the Diocese was aware of students being caned in the distant past.

"This was a long time ago, though. More around the 1940s, and more so at boys' schools."

Ms Freer personally attended four different Catholic schools. She wasn't aware of any abuse or beatings at the schools.

"The Diocese takes accusations of abuse, neglect or any harsh treatment at our schools today very seriously."

Several people have contacted the Herald to respond to Dame Kiri's claims.

Dave Butler wrote: "Dame Kiri says she grew up to be tough. She was also a huge success.

"I think the education system of today with [participation] certificates being awarded instead of 'pass' and 'fail' is creating a generation of soft and incompetent people who will never succeed in real life."

Meanwhile, Frances Gerbic said she was taught by nuns throughout her school life.

"Whilst some nuns were cruel, most were okay.

"The two most inspiring teachers I had were nuns and I am very grateful to them.

"I have a friend who attended [public school] and his stories of caning far outreach anything I have heard from a catholic school."

- additional reporting Lin Ferguson