Leyla Gencer: Operatic soprano idolised in Italy

The Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer became one of the most loved and admired operatic idols in Italy during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. Although she sang all over Europe and America, from London to Vienna, from San Francisco to Buenos Aires, it was in Italy, at La Scala, Milan, at the San Carlo, Naples, at La Fenice, Venice, at the opera houses of Rome, Florence, Turin, Trieste and many other cities, that she spent the main part of her career, singing a very wide repertory whose core consisted of the works of Donizetti and Verdi. A singing actress of great expressive power, she used her voice as a weapon in her dramatic armoury. That did not mean that she could not, when appropriate, sing with great gentleness and beauty of tone.

She was born Leyla Ceyrekgil in Istanbul in 1924. Her father was Turkish, her mother Polish and she was educated at an Italian high school and liceo. She studied at the Ankara Conservatory with the Spanish coloratura Elvira de Hidalgo, and in 1946 married a banker, Ibrahim Gencer.

Leyla Gencer made her operatic début in 1950 in Ankara as Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana. After further study with the Italian soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and the baritone Apollo Granforte, she went to Italy, where she made her début in 1953 at the Arena Flegrea in Naples, again singing Santuzza. Later in the season she sang the title role of Madama Butterfly at the San Carlo.

In 1956 Gencer went to San Francisco, where she made her début in the title role of Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini. During the next two seasons she also sang the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor, Violetta in La traviata, Massenet's Manon, Gilda in Rigoletto and Elisabeth in Don Carlos. Elisabeth would become one of her finest Verdi roles, which she repeated with great success at La Scala (1960), the Vienna State Opera and at Covent Garden (1962), where she sang the role in an emergency when Gré Brouwenstijn became ill. Gencer was in London rehearsing Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, which should have been her début role.

Gencer first appeared at La Scala in 1957, singing Madame Lidoine, the new prioress, in the world premiere of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites. Later that year she sang Leonora in La forza del destino, another favourite Verdi role that suited her passionate temperament extremely well. In 1958 she took part in another premiere, of Pizzetti's Assassinio nella Cattedrale, based on T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, in which she sang the First Woman of Canterbury. The opera was conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, who became a mentor to the soprano throughout her career. He conducted her as Maria in Pizzetti's Lo straniero (1969) in Naples.

Gencer sang two early Verdi roles, Lucrezia in I due Foscari in Venice (1957) and Lida in La battaglia di Legnano in Florence (1959) before returning to 20th-century opera with Renata in Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel at the 1959 Spoleto Festival. In 1960/61 she sang again at La Scala, as Paolina in Donizetti's Poliuto, taking over from Maria Callas, and as Lisa in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades. Her Lisa was an unexpected success, and she sang it again at Turin in 1963. Meanwhile she sang her first attempt at the title role of Bellini's Norma at Barcelona in 1962, repeating it the following season at the Coló*in Buenos Aires.

As related, Gencer made an emergency début at Govent Garden in Don Carlos in January 1962, before she sang Donna Anna in February in Franco Zeffirelli's new production of Don Giovanni. But Mozart was not one of Gencer's strongest suits: far better was Donizetti's Anna Bolena, which she sang at Glyndebourne in 1965, conducted by Gavazzeni. Anna was always one of Gencer's finest roles and even in 1977, not long before she retired, she gave a wonderful performance of it in Rome.

Otherwise, during the Sixties Gencer sang Elena in Jerusalem (the Paris version of Verdi's I Lombardi) and the title role of Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda at La Fenice in Venice; Queen Elizabeth I in Donizetti's Roberto Devereux in Naples; and Aida at La Scala and in the Verona Arena, where she was a great favourite. Gluck's Alceste was much applauded in Rome in 1967, even better liked at La Scala in 1968 and liked best of all at La Scala in1972, with Gavazzeni in the pit.

In the last decade of her career, Gencer had several new roles that were, vocally and dramatically, very well suited to her abilities. One of these was Ponchielli's La Gioconda, but one small point annoyed purists: Gioconda describes herself as blonde, but Gencer wore her own black hair. Another very popular role was the heroine of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, which she first sang at the Florence Maggio musicale and then in Naples. Verdi's Lady Macbeth, which Gencer sang under Gavazzeni's baton in Venice, and later in Rome and Florence, scored even greater triumphs.

Other Donizetti roles in which Gencer was greatly admired included Lucrezia Borgia, which gave the soprano scope for every conceivable emotional expression. She sang it first in Naples, then in Rome, Bergamo, Dallas and Florence; Antonina in Belisario in Venice, Bergamo and Naples; Caterina Cornaro in Naples and Pauline in Les Martyrs (the Paris version of Poliuto) in Bergamo were all great rarities, very well sung.

But Gencer's finest performance in the Seventies was not in an opera by Donizetti, but in Mayr's Medea in Corinto in Naples. In very good voice she was, as always, totally involved in the drama going on around her.

Elizabeth Forbes

Leyla Ceyrekgil, opera singer: born Istanbul 10 October 1924; married 1946 Ibrahim Gencer (deceased); died Milan, Italy 9 May 2008.

News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
people
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Humanities Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Humanities teacher required for ...

English Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: ENGLISH TEACHER REQUIRED - Humbe...

Chemistry Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: We are looking for a Qualified C...

Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are currently...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits