Ileana Cotrubas is among the opera world’s most beloved singers. Her lyric soprano does justice to the most fanciful melodies of Mozart and Donizetti, and her extraordinary stage presence and command of acting technique lend further credibility to her performances in both lighthearted operas such as Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio and more dramatically demanding fare such as Verdi’s Don Carlo and Puccini’s La Boheme. She is, in short, an extremely compelling performer. As George Movshon noted in the New York Times, “Even her laughter—and she laughs readily—comes in neat, musical clusters of chromatic eighth-notes.”
Cotrubas was born in 1939 in Galati, Romania. Although she grew up in a fairly musical family—her father and mother both sang—she aspired, when a child, to an acting career in Hollywood. Before adolescence, however, she had joined a children’s chorus that occasionally performed on Romanian radio and in local opera presentations. Within a few years she had reached solo status in the chorus, and when her family moved from Galati to Bucharest, Romania, in the early 1950s, she entered a music school. She devoted her first two years there to a variety of studies, including conducting, playing piano and violin, and acting. In her mid-teens, she finally began concentrating on singing. Her voice, however, was considered too modest, and she was initially rejected for further study by a Bucharest conservatory. After an additional year of music theory and practice Cotrubas reapplied to the conservatory in 1958 and gained acceptance.
Under the guidance of her teachers, notably Constantin Stroescu, Cotrubas shaped her singing voice into one featuring a more adult range. This work occupied much of her time at the conservatory, though she was also able to continue her piano studies and indulge in athletics. She also studied several languages, including those in which most operas are written—Italian, German, and French. It was as a singer of the latter language that she first appeared as a soloist in 1964 with Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande at the Bucharest Opera. During the next year Cotrubas also appeared in company productions of Gounod’s Faust and Verdi’s Don Carlo and Un Ballo in Maschera. Her most impressive feat during this period, though, was as triple winner at an important Dutch vocal competition. Scoring victories in the key categories of opera, oratorio, and lieder, Cotrubas consequently appeared on the Dutch stage in Mozart’s Magic Flute and The Abduction From the Seraglio. The following year Cotrubas scored another triumph at a West German competition, and her career was assured.
Throughout the remainder of the 1960s Cotrubas continued
Born June 9, 1939, in Galati, Romania; daughter of Vasile (a civil servant) and Maria Cotrubas; married Manfred Ramin (Cotrubas’s singing coach and manager), 1972. Education: Attended Ciprian Porumbescu Conservatory during late 1950s.
Opera and concert singer. Debuted as Yniold in Pellas et Melisande at Bucharest Opera, 1964; has since appeared at major opera houses and concert halls, including Frankfurt Opera, 1968, Glyndebourne Festival, 1968, Salzburg Festival, 1969, Royal Opera House (Covent Garden, London), 1971, Paris Opera, 1974, La Scala (Milan), 1975, and Metropolitan Opera (New York), 1977.
Awards: Won three first-place prizes at singing contest in Hertognebosch, Holland, 1965; won first prize in Munich radio-television contest, 1966; Austrian Kammersangerin, 1981.
to sing in Europe. Among her greatest successes at this time was as Melisande at a Glyndebourne Festival production in 1969 under conductor John Pritchard. The next year she again thrilled British audiences when she appeared at London’s Covent Garden—home of the Royal Opera House—in a production of Tchaikovshy’s Eugene Onegin. Cotrubas’s sensitive portrayal in the latter work proved especially endearing, and in the ensuing years the British public came to hold her in what Movshon described in the New York Times as “unusual affection.”
After her first British appearances, however, Cotrubas returned to the continent and sang for three years with the Vienna State Opera. Among her greatest performances with the Vienna company was as the tubercular courtesan Violetta in Verdi’s drama La Traviata. This role has been an especially befitting one for Cotrubas, as it allows her to express the vulnerability that is her specialty. Years later, she recorded the role opposite celebrated tenor Placido Domingo in what Newsweek’s Annalyn Swan described as a “supurb” rendition, one that “ranks with the best available.” Swan, who also assessed Cotrubas’s 1981 performances of La Traviata at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, noted that “from the moment she sweeps onstage … hers is a memorable Violetta—sweet, vulnerable and infinitely touching.” Cotrubas, Swan added, “transforms a domestic drama into something approaching tragedy.”
Cotrubas’s first triumph in America, however, had come eight years earlier when she appeared as Mimi in the Chicago Lyric Opera’s presentation of Puccini’s La Boheme. Like Violetta in La Traviata, Mimi is tubercular, and like Violetta, the role of Mimi affords Cotrubas ample opportunity to display her gifs for endearingly expressive vocalization and expression. Puccini’s opera has also proved a key work for Cotrubas, as it was the opera with which she made her debuts at two of the world’s greatest opera houses—La Scala and the Metropolitan. At La Scala, she was a last-minute replacement in 1975 opposite the great Luciano Pavarotti who, upon learning that scheduled soprano Mirella Freni was ill, reportedly cried, “Get Cotrubas!” Recalling the event, Cotrubas told the New York Times, “In the end they shouted and shouted, and Pavarotti … left me alone for the applause. And I thanked God.”
She was similarly successful in La Boheme at the Metropolitan, where her performance prompted New York Times reviewer Raymond Ericson to describe her as “an unusually fine artist.” Following her successes in the mid-1970s with La Traviata and La Boheme, Cotrubas has consolidated her reputation with a variety of performance on stage and record. At the Metropolitan, she has appeared in works such as Verdi’s Rigoletto and Mozart’s Idomeneo (both performances were televised); at Glyndebourne she drew praise for her work in Verdi’s Don Carlo and Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both productions have been recorded on video tape); and in Chicago she triumphed in a mid-1980s production of Puccini’s La Rondine. Aside from La Traviata, Cotrubas’s greatest operatic recordings include Donnizetti’s L’Eliser d’Amore (opposite Domingo) and Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In addition, she has appeared on recordings of Hugo Wolf’s lieder and Haydn’s The Seasons.
Though diminuitive and endearing, Cotrubas has also developed a reputation as an exacting, demanding performer, one who is adamant in her refusal to compromise her work. As such, she is sometimes characterized as egomaniacal and uncooperative. She disputed these charges to Opera News interviewer Thomas Lanier, to whom she explained: “I’m demanding a lot from other people because I’m giving. I have to give, because I have some special qualities; like any artist, I have to transmit these feelings, and I can’t do this without a good conductor, understanding colleagues, and a serious director.” Cotrubas is not without confidence, though. Pondering the British public’s particular enthusiasm for her, she mused to the New York Times, “Maybe it is because I am good.”
Arias by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, and Puccini, Columbia, 1977.
Gaetano Donizetti, L’Elisir d’Amore, Columbia, 1977.
Giuseppe Verdi, La Traviata, Deutsche Grammophon, 1977.
Franz Joseph Haydn, The Seasons, London, 1978.
Verdi, Rigoletto, Deutsche Grammophon, 1981.
Giacomo Puccini, Gianni Schicchi, Columbia.
George Bizet, Carmen, Deutsche Grammophon.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro.
Mozart, The Magic Flute, RCA.
Englebert Humperdinck, Hansel and Gretel.
High Fidelity, June, 1978.
Newsweek, April 6, 1981.
New York Times, March 25, 1977; April 10, 1977.
Opera News, September, 1975; December, 1977; March 28, 1981.
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Cotrubaş, Ileana , outstanding Romanian soprano;b. Galati, June 9, 1939. After studies at the Scolă Specială de Muzică (1952–57) and with Eugenia Elinescu and Constantin Stroescu at the Bucharest Cons. (1957–63), she made her operatic debut as Yniod in Pelléas et Mélisande in Bucharest (1964). She took first prize in both the ’s-Hertogenbosch (1965) and Munich Radio (1966) competitions, and then completed her studies at the Vienna Academy of Music (1967). She appeared at the Salzburg Festival in 1967, then was a member of the Frankfurt am Main Opera (1968–71). In 1969 she appeared as M é lisande at the Glyndebourne Festival and as Pamina at the Vienna State Opera, where she subsequently appeared regularly. She was made an Austrian Kammersangerin in 1981. In 1973 she made her U.S. debut as Mimi at the Chicago Lyric Opera. She then sang in Paris (1974) and at Milan’s La Scala (1975). On March 23, 1977, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. in the role of Mimi. In addition to her appearances at the world’s leading opera houses and festivals, she also toured extensively as a concert artist until her retirement in 1989. Among her other notable roles were Amina, Susanna, Norina, Adina, Violetta, Gilda, Marguerite, Elisabetta, Antonia, and Micaela. Her career is recounted in her book Opernwahrheiten (Vienna, 1998).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire
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