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



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