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Leyla Gencer was born into a wealthy family: her father was a Turkish Muslim with business interests in Istanbul and her mother a Polish Catholic who had converted to Islam. When she was sixteen she entered the Istanbul Conservatory, but after meeting the distinguished Italian soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi (who was a voice coach with Ankara State Opera) in 1949, she withdrew from the Conservatory to study with Arangi-Lombardi in Ankara while also singing as a member of the chorus of the Turkish State Theatre. Following Arangi-Lombardi’s death in 1951 she continued her vocal studies with Apollo Granforte, as well as working on Italian repertoire with Adolfo Camozzo and Domenico Trizzio and German opera with Georg Reinwald.

In 1950 Gencer made her solo operatic stage debut as Santuzza / Cavalleria rusticana with the Ankara State Opera. She also began to sing at official functions of the Turkish government, while further appearances in Ankara included the title role in Tosca in 1952 and Fiordiligi / Così fan tutte in 1953. Her Italian stage debut came in 1953 at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples as Santuzza; she returned during the following year to sing the title role in Madama Butterfly and Tatyana / Eugene Onegin and her American stage debut was in the title role of Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini in 1956 at San Francisco.

Gencer’s major breakthrough to international attention took place when the French composer Francis Poulenc chose her to sing Madame Lidoine in the world premiere of his opera Dialogues des carmélites at La Scala, Milan, in 1957. This was followed by her appearance during 1958 in another first performance at La Scala, as the First Woman of Canterbury in Pizzetti’s L’assassinio nella cattedrale. She returned to La Scala regularly until 1983, performing nineteen roles in total including Leonora / La forza del destino, Elisabetta / Don Carlo, Lady Macbeth / Macbeth and Ottavia / L’ incoronazione di Poppea as well as the title roles of Aida, Alceste and Norma. She also sang widely throughout Italy and internationally on both sides of the Atlantic, in bel canto roles as well as other repertoire. Gencer created a startling Renata in the first Italian production of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel at Spoleto (1959) and sang a fine Amelia / Simon Boccanegra at the Salzburg Festival in 1961, the year in which she also made her debut at the Vienna State Opera. She first sang at the Royal Opera House, London in 1962 as Donna Anna / Don Giovanni, also appearing at Glyndebourne as the Countess / Le nozze di Figaro (1962, 1963) and in the title role of Anna Bolena (1965).

Throughout her career, Gencer was especially known as an interpreter of Donizetti and gave memorable performances of many of his lesser-known operas including Belisario, Caterina Cornaro, Lucrezia Borgia, Maria Stuarda, Poliuto and Roberto Devereux. Other rarely-performed operas in which she made a strong impact included Smareglia’s La Falena, Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, Spontini’s Agnese di Hohenstaufen and Pacini’s Saffo. At the same time she was thrilling in the mainstream repertoire as her accounts of, for instance, Aida and La forza del destino testify.

In 1985 Gencer retired from the operatic stage with a performance of Gnecco’s La prova d’un opera seria at La Fenice, Venice but continued to appear in concerts until 1992. Between 1983 and 1988 she was a director of As.Li.Co. of Milan, an organisation dedicated to supporting young singers, and later she was a central figure in La Scala’s School for Young Artists during Muti’s period as artistic director.

Gencer’s abilities as an operatic performer were considerable. She possessed excellent coloratura combined with ravishing high notes, but could adopt a husky, darker tone for heavier roles; and absolutely dominated the stage with real dramatic presence. Although she was largely ignored by the major recording companies, the circulation of live recordings of her performances has flourished continuously, making her one of the most recorded sopranos of her generation.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

Role: Classical Artist 
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