Gencer, Leyla (1924—)

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Gencer, Leyla (1924—)

Turkish soprano and coloratura who had a long and distinguished international career as a bel canto singer of the highest quality. Born in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 10, 1924 (though Gencer maintains she was born in 1928); married Ibrahim Gencer.

Considering the fact that she never made any commercial recordings or sang at New York's Metropolitan Opera, Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer enjoys a strong artistic reputation that continues to grow with the passage of time. Born in Istanbul (standard reference works note the year as 1924, but Gencer has told interviewers the correct year is 1928) to a Polish Roman Catholic mother and a wealthy Turkish Muslim father, she made her stage debut in 1950 in Ankara singing the role of Santuzza. She entered several singing competitions in Turkey, and although she never won any, the young singer remained confident about her future prospects, having received strong support from her coaches Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and Apollo Granforte. Only when she began to sing in Italy in 1953 did Gencer become a star. Her Italian debut, which took place in Naples, tested the young singer's ability to work under extreme pressure. After an audition, she was asked if she wanted to sing in Cavalleria Rusticana. Her answer was in the affirmative, but she noted in passing that while she had indeed sung the work on stage, it was in Turkish not Italian. With only five days to learn her role in Italian, Gencer mastered it so well that her appearance, before 10,000 demanding Italian opera fans, was a triumph.

Within months, Gencer was engaged by Naples' San Carlo Opera House to sing in both Madama Butterfly and Eugene Onegin (which she sang in Italian, as is customary in Italy, although it is a Russian opera). Over the next decades, she would perform at most of the world's great opera houses, working with noted conductors including the legendary Italian maestro Tullio Serafin. The venerable Serafin put Gencer on the path to her later career as a bel canto singer, and it was with him that she learned roles, including Aida and Norma, for a number of operas. By 1956, Gencer was appearing regularly at Milan's La Scala Opera House. In 1957, she had the signal honor of singing the "Libera me" from Verdi's Requiem at the La Scala memorial service for its greatest musician, Arturo Toscanini. She rapidly built up a loyal following of fans who cheered her at every performance. Gencer appeared in several world premiere performances at La Scala, including Dialogues des Carmélites by Francis Poulenc in January 1957 and Assassinio nella cattedrale by Ildebrando Pizzetti in March 1958.

By the end of the 1950s, Gencer had become a major figure in the opera world, presenting annual guest appearances at Florence's Maggio musicale and the San Francisco Opera. In 1959, she sang at the Spoleto Festival in one of the rare performances of Sergei Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel. In 1961, Gencer made her Austrian premiere, appearing on stage both at the Vienna State Opera as well as the Salzburg Festival, where her performance of Amelia in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra earned rave reviews from critics and standing ovations from audiences. Gencer thrilled her audiences with portrayals of well-known heroines, but also learned roles from a number of less well-known and virtually forgotten operas (by the end of her career, she had a repertory of 72 operas, overwhelmingly Italian but also including such modern works as Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel and Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring). In 1972, she appeared at Naples' Teatro San Carlo in the title role of Donizetti's long-neglected opera Caterina Cornaro .

Leyla Gencer brought not only great artistic talent to her singing and acting, but often provided new insights into old performing traditions that were in danger of becoming stale and hackneyed. Because she learned singing in a part of the world where European music was only one aspect of musical life, Gencer was not totally immersed in traditions: "Everything was new for me. When I studied, I remained very close to the score as written. I didn't imitate anyone. I sang according to my own musical conception, according to my own musical understanding. My colleagues had grown up in the verismo era and believed you always had to sing forte. Perhaps because I hadn't heard the others, I was untainted by any vestige of the infamous age of verismo [which placed an] emphasis on loud singing, on exaggeration. I sang with delicacy and nuance—a style that in a few years everyone imitated."

Leyla Gencer ended her opera career in 1983 but concertized until 1992. Since then, she has divided her time and energy between serving on competition juries and giving master classes. In 1995, a proud Turkish nation witnessed the first Yapi Kredi International Leyla Gencer Voice Competition. Held in Istanbul, it attracted young singers from around the world and was praised as a major cultural event that would only grow in importance in the future. By the end of the 1990s, a large number of Gencer live recordings from various phases of her long and remarkable career were available for opera lovers to enjoy and critique. Modern technology has thus been able to preserve the legacy of a great singing actress, an artist regarded by many critics as being "one of the last of the last prima donnas in the truly grand manner."


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Gencer, Leyla (1924—)

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