These are the golden years for Dame Kiri Te Kanawa - those few precious years when an artist is at the absolute peak of her form; when every element of her singing - technical mastery, tone, expressiveness, maturity and sheen - is making its maximum effect.

There are sopranos that sing higher, and louder, and with more cutting edge than Te Kanawa. But more than one critic has declared her the soprano with the most beautiful tone, the most penetrating artistry in opera today. Certainly she's one of the most beautiful women now singing opera.Kiri's at the top, and Utah's got her.

Te Kanawa will be in Salt Lake City for the first time next weekend, as the prestigious guest of the Tanner Gift of Music, which brings her together with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Utah Symphony, with Julius Rudel as guest conductor. The Tanner concerts will be in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and admission is free to holders of tickets that have long since been distributed. (Educated tip: Try your luck anyway; seating will be thrown open to the general public after the first number.)

In a program designed to please as many tastes as possible, the gifted international soprano will alternate with and join the choir in a mixed bag of sacred, operatic and show tunes, with emphasis on the inspirational. Hence "O Divine Redeemer" will rub shoulders with "You'll Never Walk Alone," the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria and "Climb Every Mountain." She's also programmed the Nuns Chorus from "Casanova" by Johann Strauss, a specialty that she's loved since the earliest days of her career in New Zealand.

After the last strains of the live concerts die out, this program is destined for national and even international dissemination, via television and rec-ord.

KUED-Channel 7 will videotape the Tanner Gift of Music and produce an hourlong special for national distribution over more than 300 PBS stations, beginning in the Easter season of 1990. The director will be award-winning Kirk Browning, whose credits include "Live from Lincoln Center" and "Live from the Met." Scott Iverson, widely experienced as the writer/producer/director of Mormon Tabernacle Choir television programs, will produce the special, with Doug Schrems, executive producer and director of production services at KUED-7.

The choir and KUED's most recent cooperation for national consumption was the Shirley Verrett Christmas special, which has had more than 40 million PBS viewers.

Also on hand will be representatives of London Decca Records, recording the program for later release.

Reached by telephone in Los Angeles, where she was on concert tour, Kiri Te Kanawa ascribed some of her musical instincts to her roots in the Maori nation of New Zealand (surely among the most musical people in the world). Born to a European mother and Maori father, she was adopted by an Irish mother and Maori father. Perhaps prophetically, "Kiri" means "bell" in Maori.

"I guess I credit my Maori background with 50 percent of my talent," she said. "The Maori are very sincere, they have great warmth of humanity, but they are very shy. I suppose my Irish blood gave me the courage to go public."

She found being raised in New Zealand "a big advantage. It's a sheltering place, a wonderful place to be a child, it was and is a very safe society." As a teenager, she won the Auckland Competition and Mobil Song Quest, and a little later in Australia, the Melbourne Sun Competition. "And yes, winning the competitions in New Zealand was a very big deal; it's a country of only 3 mil lion, but it places a high priority on artistic achievement," said Te Kanawa.

Prophets may be without honor in their own country, but New Zealand singers are not. Indeed, Te Kanawa is a national heroine of sorts, creating traffic jams and ticket jams whenever she returns home.

Due mostly to the urging of her mother, who early recognized the child's exceptional talent, the family moved from Gisborne to Auckland. There Kiri could have the best vocal training available - at St. Mary's College, under Sister Mary Leo, teacher of many fine New Zealand singers.

She came to London on a four-year scholarship from the New Zealand Arts Council to study at the London Opera Centre. She made her debut at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden as Xenia in "Boris Godunov" in the spring of 1971, and the following fall, created a sensation as the Countess in "The Marriage of Figaro" - a role that still figures prominently in her repertory.

At all the major opera houses of the world - in Europe with the Vienna, La Scala, Paris, Munich and Cologne operas, in the United States with the Metropolitan, Chicago Lyric and San Francisco operas - she sings the roles best suited to her particular vocal refinement and timbre, roles of the exact proper weight, for she doesn't wear herself out on unsuitable works.

"I do choose my roles carefully, like jewels, and I don't have all that many," she said. "They are like diamond rings - you can only wear one at a time! It's the same with my concert songs."

Among her roles are selected Mozart heroines; Verdi's Violetta, Amelia in "Boccanegra" and Desdemona; Puccini's Mimi, Tosca and Manon Lescaut; R. Strauss's Arabella and Marschallin; J. Strauss's Rosalinda; and such miscellany as Marguerite in "Faust" and Tatiana in "Eugen Onegin."

- DAME KIRI'S CONCERT APPEARANCES are awesomely stellar: with the world's greatest orchestras - Chicago, Vienna, New York, London, Boston, Detroit and Los Angeles symphonies among many others, under such conductors as Solti, Colin Davis, Levine, Mehta, Abbado, Ozawa, Dutoit. Song recitals take her throughout Europe, coast to coast in the United States, and to the Far East, including the lands down under. She's recorded her great operatic roles, also religious masterpieces, and albums of Strauss, Berlioz, and Ravel.

Her opera films include Joseph Losey's "Don Giovanni" and Ponnelle's "Marriage of Figaro," plus many televised operas from European houses and on "Live from the Met" in "Der Rosenkavalier" and "Die Fledermaus."

Nor is this all; she's a popular crossover artist, whose records have included "Kiri Sings Gershwin," "West Side Story," "South Pacific" and "My Fair Lady." Her love for light music goes back to her youth when, according to biographer David Fingleton, she was a fun-loving girl who at first preferred to make money singing in clubs and was not terribly eager for the hard labor involved in building a career.

She's a favorite of Britain's royal family, and probably no appearance brought her greater attention than singing for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana - a performance seen and heard by 82 million viewers worldwide.

Behind the public artist is a very practical and independent private person, with a pretty clear idea of just where she stands.

"You always need adulation, you need your audience to bring out the best," she said, "but I realize that adulation dies at the moment someone slights you. For example, I went into a community and did a concert, and everyone was wonderful, gave beautiful flowers; then I asked the person escorting me what time I should meet him to go to the airport the next morning, and he replied, oh, I can't do that!

"But I don't take such things to heart. And I don't read critics. The more they rave about me or complain, the more I have my own opinion. I block out what others say and take their praise with a grain of salt."

After working several years with others in England, she found Vera Rozsa, with whom she has studied and coached for almost 20 years. "I will work with Vera as long as I sing, I can't wait to get back to her after a long tour," she said. "Some singers can go on their own and feel sure they are doing the right thing, but for myself, I need to work with my teacher."

- IN THE BUSY, DEMANDING WORLD of mega-engagements that come around as regularly and inexorably as ducks in a shooting gallery, how does she maintain her equilibrium?

"First out, I don't do parties - I don't do preparties or apres-parties," she said firmly, "because I don't want to talk, and if there's drinking, it's worse. You have to shout to make yourself heard, and if I shout, I lose my voice. My life on tour is very lonely, but fortunately I like to be alone."

As a girl, Te Kanawa had a passion for shopping, and it's a taste she still indulges. "I love to go through the shops, but I have this `anti' thing about designers, I don't care about designer clothes all that much. Not that I wouldn't love to have someone who would dress me always in the best taste!"

She also enjoys tennis and golf with a few personal friends, who are important to her. Among many places she loves in America are California, Arizona and the desert in general.

- TE KANAWA HAS FIRM OPINIONS on child-rearing and carefully guards the privacy of her family life with her husband, Desmond Park, and son and daughter. After several years in New York, they now maintain a home in London.

"We all work constantly, but when we say we will do something together, we do it," she declared. "Sundays are precious; we try to keep that day free for what we like to do together - movies or sports, and we travel together during school vacation. We hardly ever go out at night, and the children are in bed at nine.

"It is most important to bring up children in basically the same way you were brought up, with no airs and graces. Money rules most families these days, with people spending a lot on the kids. Ours have to earn their money the old-fashioned way!

"Even the schools they go to are not fashionable, upper-class schools. My children are not upper class and never will be. They are very simple and unsophisticated, though they do travel with us and meet many famous people. Then they see them on television and say, I know him or her! But we keep that in proportion.

"The class system exists not only in England but throughout the world, with parents giving too much. Parents must be truthful and honest about where they come from. I find it a wrong sense of values when a mother works as a maid to keep a child in a private school that's educating him to look down on her."