de los Angeles, Victoria
One of the most beloved operatic sopranos of the twentieth century, Spain's Victoria de Los Angeles was second to none in her ability to fill the stage and seize the attention of an audience—the mark of a true diva. Yet her talents extended far beyond opera: for most of her long career she devoted time and energy to recitals—concerts of classical songs and vocal excerpts from larger works, usually accompanied by a piano. Never hesitating to identify herself and her talents with her native Spain, de los Angeles likewise excelled in Italian, French, and German opera, and she carried on a long love affair with British and American audiences, sometimes singing in English. In addition to being an opera star, Victoria de los Angeles was a model example of a well-rounded artist.
A member of Spain's minority Catalan ethnic group, de los Angeles was born Victoria Gómez Cima on November 1, 1923, in Barcelona, Spain; Victoria de los Angeles was her stage name. Her father was a caretaker at the University of Barcelona, and her mother was a housecleaner. Both were music lovers, and de los Angeles learned to play the guitar when she was young, and sometimes cut class in school to stand and play the instrument in an empty lecture hall. She loved opera even when she was a child, and would stand in long lines at Barcelona's opera house when she could afford a ticket. Her teachers recognized her talent, and though the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s interrupted de los Angeles's education, these teachers finally prevailed upon her reluctant family to let her study music at Barcelona's Conservatory of the Liceu.
She finished the normal six-year program at the conservatory in three years, graduating with highest honors. While a student at the conservatory, de los Angeles met law student Enrique Magrina in a coffee house; the two embarked on a long courtship that culminated in their marriage in 1948, and they raised two sons. She turned down a chance to appear in Puccini's tearjerker La Bohème when she was 18 because she felt she wasn't ready, but gave song recitals during World War II. She also joined a group called Ars Musicae, which specialized in vocal music of various eras, and was one of the few performing groups of that time to investigate the music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras (from about 1500 to 1750). For years, de los Angeles would cultivate an unusually wide repertory that included operas by Baroque composers Claudio Monteverdi and Henry Purcell, very rarely seen on operatic stages in her time.
De los Angeles finally made her official operatic debut in 1945, with an appearance in Barcelona as the Countess in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Another event that served notice of her talent came when de los Angeles took first prize in the Contest of Music and Singing in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1947—perhaps the top competition of the time. After her victory, de los Angeles took a phone call from the director of Milan's La Scala opera house, the pinnacle of the operatic world, asking her to come to Milan to audition, but a flustered de los Angeles said that she had to get back to her parents as soon as possible. However, she soon made a pair of appearances in Madrid opposite tenor Beniamino Gigli, winning cheers from crowds in the Spanish capital and reportedly annoying the great Italian tenor, who felt that he had been upstaged. In the late 1940s, de los Angeles made her first 78 rpm recordings, for Britain's HMV label.
Her La Scala debut came soon enough, in 1950, in the Richard Strauss opera Ariadne auf Naxos, and over the next few years she became a familiar face at the world's major opera houses: Covent Garden in London, the Grand Opera in Paris and, on St. Patrick's Day of 1951, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she appeared as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust. Over the next decade she became an audience favorite. Often, when appearing in a new city, she would schedule a vocal recital in advance of her operatic appearances. One of her most famous performances at the Met, later released on compact discs made from 1958 radio broadcasts of the opera, was in Giuseppe Verdi's adaptation of Shakespeare's Otello, opposite top stars Mario del Monaco as Otello and Leonard Warren as Iago.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, de los Angeles was a major star. Critics struggled to define her appeal in words; she had neither the biggest voice nor the most fiery temperament among opera royalty of the time, but audiences everywhere loved her. New York Herald Tribune critic Virgil Thomson (quoted in Opera News) wrote that "Miss de los Angeles is not without vocal power. She simply does not throw it at you." Opera News praised her "ear-catching combination of warm, luxurious tone, immaculate intonation, and masterful phrasing," characterizing her as "incomparable in opera roles that tapped her gift for expressing pathos." Her measured stage entrances during her recitals also gave a clue to the nature of her operatic success: her sense of timing was superb, and she had a way of connecting directly with audience members, even in a large hall. She often concluded her recitals by taking a seat on top of the closed piano and accompanying herself on the guitar in a Spanish song.
Among de los Angeles's greatest triumphs was a 1961 appearance in Richard Wagner's opera Tannhäuser at the opening of the Bayreuth Festival in Germany; few sopranos from Italy or Spain had successfully made the transition to the very different world of German opera, but de los Angeles won rave reviews. Though she tended to avoid the Spanish-flavored role of Carmen in Georges Bizet's opera of that name for fear of being stereotyped, her 1959 recording of the opera was a great success. She toured all over the world, with destinations including the former Soviet Union and the Far East. Continuing to perform through the 1970s, de los Angeles gradually shifted her emphasis from opera to recitals.
Even after she retired from opera in 1979, de los Angeles continued performing. She appeared during the closing ceremonies of the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and the following year she went ahead with a recital at London's Wigmore Hall, even though thousands of dollars' worth of cash and jewelry had been stolen from her bag backstage before the concert began. She announced her complete retirement in 1998 after the death of one of her sons. When Victoria de los Angeles died in Barcelona on January 15, 2005, she left behind a recorded legacy of 22 complete operas and over 40 recital discs—and memories, in the words of the London Times, of "a lyric soprano voice of unsurpassed beauty" that "must cause her to be rated among the greatest singers of the second half of the 20th century."
For the Record …
Born Victoria Gómez Cima on November 1, 1923, in Barcelona, Spain; died on January 15, 2005, in Barcelona; father was a university caretaker, mother a housecleaner; married Enrique Magrina (a lawyer), 1948; children: two. Education: Studied music at the Conservatory of the Liceu, Barcelona.
Made debut in Barcelona in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, 1945; made debut at La Scala, Milan, Italy, 1950; made debut at Metropolitan Opera, New York City, 1951; performed in Richard Wagner's opera Tannhäuser in Bayreuth, West Germany, 1961; retired from operatic stage, 1979; continued to perform vocal recitals; appeared at closing ceremonies of Summer Olympics, Barcelona, 1992; made more than 80 recordings for EMI label.
Awards: Six Grand Prix du Disque (French recording industry) awards; Edison Award; numerous other awards.
(With Leonard Warren, Mario del Monaco, and others) Verdi: Otello, Metropolitan Opera.
Puccini: La bohème, EMI, 1956; reissued, 1997.
Bizet: Carmen, EMI, 1987.
The Fabulous Victoria de los Angeles, EMI, 1993.
Purcell: Dido and Aeneas, EMI, 1995 (reissue).
The Early Recordings: 1942-1953, Testament, 1996.
Opera Arias, EMI, 2000.
The Very Best of Victoria de los Angeles, EMI, 2003.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), January 17, 2005.
Guardian (London, England), January 17, 2005, p. 19.
New York Times, January 16, 2005, p. A26.
Opera News, April 2005, p. 90.
Times (London, England), January 17, 2005, p. 49.
"Victoria de los Angeles," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 16, 2005).