Yoko Watanabe

Soprano who made a hair-raising Madama Butterfly

Yoko Watanabe, like many another Japanese soprano, spent a large part of her career singing the protagonist of
Madama Butterfly, all over Europe, in North and South America and in Australia. However, unlike some of her compatriots, she also sang other Puccini roles - Mimi in
La Bohème, the title roles of
Suor Angelica and
Manon Lescaut, and Liù in
Turandot, which was possibly her finest interpretation of all.

Yoko Watanabe, opera singer: born Fukuoka, Japan 12 July 1953; married Renato Grimaldi; died Milan 15 July 2004.

Yoko Watanabe, like many another Japanese soprano, spent a large part of her career singing the protagonist of Madama Butterfly, all over Europe, in North and South America and in Australia. However, unlike some of her compatriots, she also sang other Puccini roles - Mimi in La Bohème, the title roles of Suor Angelica and Manon Lescaut, and Liù in Turandot, which was possibly her finest interpretation of all.

Her repertory also included Micaela in Carmen, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Marguerite in Faust, Amelia in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra and, towards the end of her career, Adriana Lecouvreur in Cilea's operatic version of the play by Scribe.

Yoko Watanabe was born in Fukuoka in 1953. She studied in Tokyo, gaining a diploma in piano as well as singing, and went on to study in Milan. In 1978 she won a singing competition in Treviso, where she made her début as Nedda in Pagliacci. For a while her career lay mostly in Italy - she married the Italian tenor Renato Grimaldi - and she sang Butterfly at the Teatro Regio in Turin, the Teatro San Carlo in Naples and at Genoa. Then in the early 1980s she sang Mimi in Basle, Cologne and Frankfurt, and Butterfly in Madrid, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf and Berlin. In 1983 she appeared as Butterfly with the Royal Opera in Manchester and in 1984 as Liù with the Royal Opera in Los Angeles.

Watanabe's Butterfly was no ordinary geisha. She was described by one critic as "a proud, determined, sometimes strident child-woman". Her finest moments were those of the most intense emotion, such as the sighting of Pinkerton's ship, when her great cry of "Abraham Lincoln!" raised the hairs on the back of one's neck. Similarly, the farewell to her child before she kills herself was filled with, not pathos, but a truly scarifying and passionate grief. In the Americas she sang the role in Toronto, Detroit, Dallas, Boston, Chicago, Santiago, Buenos Aires and for her début at the Metropolitan, New York in 1987. That year she also sang Butterfly with Scottish Opera.

Meanwhile, Watanabe had made her début at La Scala, Milan, in 1985, singing Liù in Turandot. Once again, her characterisation of the slave girl was highly original, and, again, it was finest in moments of extreme tension. Faced with the Princess Turandot and her torturers in the third act, this Liù entirely forgot her lowly status and treated her rival for the love of Calaf as an equal. In December 1991 the Royal Opera, in conjunction with Raymond Gubbay, gave a number of performances of Turandot in the Wembley Arena. There were several casts, and the first featured Gwyneth Jones as Turandot and Watanabe as Liù, and their confrontation was magnificent.

Watanabe sang Butterfly at Covent Garden in 1992, when "Abraham Lincoln!" was more hair-raising than ever, and her whole performance was strongly dramatic. In 1994 she sang Amelia in Simon Boccanegra in Tokyo, but did not get very good reviews. The same year she took on a new role, Adriana Lecouvreur, in Adelaide. She had sung Butterfly in 1991 at Adelaide, conducted by Richard Bonynge (apparently the first time he had conducted Puccini's opera), and he had asked her back for Adriana Lecouvreur.

The opening night was fine musically, but undramatic. However, by the end of the run she had found her way inside the character of Adriana, and her recital of the passage from Racine's Phèdre earned tumultuous applause.

Elizabeth Forbes



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee