Sister Mary Leo

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Dame Sister Mary Leo, DBE (3 April 1895 – 5 May 1989) was a New Zealand religious sister who is best known for training some of the world's finest sopranos, including Dames Malvina Major, Kiri Te Kanawa and Heather Begg.

She was born as Kathleen Agnes Niccol in Auckland and educated by the Sisters of Mercy. She began to show a musical talent and eventually adopted the vocation of a teacher of music, and took private classes in dancing, elocution, and singing.

She became a nun herself with the Sisters of Mercy at the age of 28, taking the religious name Sister Mary Leo. She occupied herself in the work of her religious institute in tending to the sick and needy. Sister Mary Leo initially began her teaching career as a violin teacher. She never received formal training in vocal technique. It was in the late 1930s, after she heard a recording of Deanna Durbin and was so taken with Durbin's natural tone, flexible technique, vocal range and repertoire that included both opera and light music, that she decided to devote her time to teaching singing.[citation needed]

She developed the already strong musical tradition of St Mary's College in Auckland, with its orchestra, choirs, and individual tuition, and also conducted the Sisters' Choir. From 1934, the college offered private tuition, and her reputation as a vocal coach flourished.[citation needed]

From 1950 on, honours and plaudits followed the success of such students as Dame Malvina Major, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Dame Heather Begg, Mina Foley, Judith Edwards, Elisabeth Hellawell, Patricia Price, Mona Ross, Elaine Dow and Leo's influence even extended into the rock music world with student Jan Hellriegel.

She was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 1963 New Year Honours,[1] and elevated a Dame Commander of the Order (DBE) in the 1973 Birthday Honours.[2] She died in 1989, aged 94.


  1. ^ "No. 42872". The London Gazette (Supplement). 28 December 1962. p. 40. 
  2. ^ "No. 45985". The London Gazette (Supplement). 22 May 1973. p. 6508. 

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