The Well-Tempered Ear

Who is the better classical diva – Kiri Te Kawa or Renee Fleming? | September 18, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

Two of the world’s top singers are in the news.

Soprano Kiri Te Kanawa (below right) – now 65 and past her prime, which was prime indeed  — has backed off from suggestions that she might retire, according to press account in the U.S. and Australia.


Meanwhile top soprano Renee Fleming (below left), who at 50 is in peak form and is very, very busy and is the current darling of the opera and concert world, helped open the New York Philharmonic’s new season Wednesday night when she sang Olivier Messiaen’s “Poemes pour Mi” (anyone else find the work underwhelming?) with the Philharmonic’s new director Alan Gilbert at the opening of his tenure. (You could see it and hear on PBS.)reneefleming

Now I have heard Dame Kiri live when she came to Madison.

I don’t think Fleming has ever appeared here. And with her fee, she probably won’t.

But who is better?

The overwhelming consensus today seems to be Fleming. (For the sake of argument, we’ll leave out Dawn Upshaw, who, I also think, is superb, and Maria Callas, who has never been surpassed for her sense of drama, if not for her  voice.)

But I recall hearing both Fleming and Te Kanana sing two famous Puccini arias: Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” from “Gianni Schicchi and “Vissi d’arte” from “Tosca.”

And I have to say that, in both cases, I liked the quality of Kiri’s voice better.

To my ears, she had less obtrusive vibrato.

Most of all her phrasing seemed simply smoother and more natural.

And her tone was smoother and fuller, rounded with kind of naturalness, pleasant to the ears — the kind of apparently easy or effortless and natural-sounding mastery that tenor Luciano Pavarotti had.

But voice is not my specialty.

So what do real voice fans, opera and art song fanatics, say?

Kiri or Renee?

And why?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Drafts


  1. Renée Fleming is one of the greatest ever singers in terms of voice – timbre and in her prime a truly flawless technique, interpretation, command of language, range of roles, and difficulty of repertoire. Kiri had a gorgeous voice, and excellent technique but had a narrower repertoire, much lesser interpretative powers, much less ease with language (never learned Italian or German). Nevertheless still the greatest lyric soprano of her generation, just not the greatest of the century (which is undoubtedly Renée)

    Comment by celloguy — March 1, 2018 @ 11:16 am

  2. I have been listening to more renee as of recent times and I agree that it all depends on the chosen repertoise. I am pretty sure that critics and fans agree that mozart and strauss kiri is in a league of her own. Her renditions are still praised as among the best ever! Renee is great in these roles as well but I personally think dvorak (rosulka), verdi (traviata) roles she excels in as her voice is so different from kiri’s. I think they are both great role models both personally and professionally for up coming opera stars.

    Both superstars are supportive of the new stars coming through.

    I have already commented but I felt I was very vague without insight to my previous comment

    Comment by paul ngatai — September 11, 2014 @ 8:50 pm

  3. they are both fab with two distinctly different soprano voices, luv both for different reasons

    Comment by paul ngatai — March 23, 2014 @ 6:06 am

    • hi paul,
      thank you for reading and replying.
      i agree with you completely, adding only that also the choice of the repertoire that is being sung can make a difference.

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 23, 2014 @ 8:18 am

  4. Hands down Renée Fleming. I love Kiri very much and she is amazing, but I have seen Renée live and I do love her vibrato and her tone. Even though most of the Puccini arias (Vissi A’rte) are too heavy for her voice she is still really amazing in that aria. I don’t know too much about the voice either, but I have to conclude with Renée Fleming. 🙂

    Comment by Nick — January 16, 2014 @ 8:21 am

  5. Definitely Kiri. I think that many people support Renee due to patriotism. If Americans want someone to compare with Kiri, then Leontyne Price is the one. Then the choice becomes much much harder.

    Comment by PeterS — November 21, 2010 @ 1:29 am

    • Hi Peter,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      I don’t know if patriotism is the reason Americans like Renee Fleming, who certainly is a big talent. And Kiri was popular here too, though there is something so American about Fleming as a person.
      But when it comes to the better voice, I too side with Kiri.

      Comment by welltemperedear — November 21, 2010 @ 10:13 am

  6. Dear Ear:
    I’m not sure you really want to go down this road. You didn’t ask, “Whom do you prefer?” You asked, “Who is the better diva?” That’s almost certainly a no-winner argument.

    It’s fair to expect an exceptionally
    high level of excellence and consistency from artists, but in reality almost all of them – and especially singers, whose instrument is their own body – have their ups and downs, their “on” nights and their “not-so-on” nights.

    (If a baseball player gets a hit every third time at the plate he/she is batting a fabulous .333. Artists, on the other hand, and singers in particular, are expected to hit a home run every time up, and unlike ball players, they’re less easily forgiven for failing to do so.)

    Both these women are incredibly gifted. I have found Dame Kiri in live performance(which is where it matters most to me) to be elegant, moving, her control extraordinary, with an amazing sheen and a shimmering quality to her sound. Renee, whom I’ve heard more often, has color, warmth and a unique emotional current running through her sound that bathes this listener in it’s beauty, humanity and vulnerability. But of course, this is all in the ear of this beholder.

    For me it comes down to what night, what music. Suppose the question was “Domingo or Pavarotti?,” “Bjoerling or Caruso?”, or suppose we asked you, Ear, who are a pianist, “Horowitz or Rubinstein?”, “Schiff or Argerich?” How might you respond?

    Many years ago I was waiting in line at the Met for standing room tickets. In front of me were two somewhat diminutive, dapper gents in suits and top coats, probably in their 50’s or 60’s, who were jabbering away in Spanish (they both looked like Fernando Rey – one even had a little feather in his hat). Gradually their conversation became very heated, one of them began hollering “Callas!”, the other one countering “Tebaldi!” and the next thing we knew they were pummeling each other. Quite amusing, quite absurd.

    Your question is stimulating, the kind that evokes
    endless, entertaining blather from passionate opera fans, but the wonderful thing for all of us is that there is plenty of room for so many winners in such a contest.

    Try Googling “O mio babbino caro” on Youtube.
    (I especially recommend Angelica Kirchschlager in live performance – I actually started to tear up.)

    Comment by Marius — September 18, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

    • Dear Marius:
      When I ask the question about “better,” I am indeed really asking which one the reader prefer, since this is art and not science we’re discussing.
      But it’s always entertaining and enlightening to hear fierce partisans give reasons one way or the other. And opera fans can be ferociously partisan.
      But you are right, Much depends on the when and the where as well as the repertoire. I’ll check out the Kirschschlager performance on YouTube, as you suggest. Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting. I look forward to hearing from others.
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 19, 2009 @ 2:31 am

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