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Known as "La Diva Turca" (The Turkish Diva) and "La Regina" (The Queen) in the opera world, Gencer was a notable bel canto soprano who spent most of her career in Italy, from the early 1950s through the mid-1980s, and had a repertoire encompassing more than seventy roles. She made very few commercial recordings; however, numerous bootleg recordings of her performances exist. In particular, Gencer was associated with the heroines of Donizetti.
Leyla Gencer was born in Polonezköy (near Istanbul) to a Turkish father and a Polish mother, Lexanda Angela Minakovska (who later converted to Islam and chose the name Atiye after her husband's death), a member of a Polish Catholic family of the Lithuanian aristocracy; while her father, Hasanzade İbrahim Bey (who later adopted the surname Çeyrekgil following the Surname Law of 1934) was a wealthy businessman and a member of a Sunni Muslim Turkish family from the city of Safranbolu.
She lost her father at a very young age. She grew up in the Çubuklu district of Istanbul, on the Anatolian side of the Bosporus, and began to study singing at the Istanbul Conservatory but dropped out to study privately in Ankara with her teacher, the Italian soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi. She sang in the chorus of the Turkish State Theater until she made her operatic debut in Ankara in 1950 as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. During the next few years, she became well known in Turkey and sang frequently at functions for the Turkish government.
In 1953, Gencer made her Italian debut at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples as Santuzza. She returned to Naples the following year for performances of Madama Butterfly and Eugene Onegin. In 1957, she made her debut at La Scala in Milan as Mme. Lidoine in the world premiere of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. She went on to appear regularly at La Scala, performing nineteen roles between 1957 and 1983 including Leonora in La forza del destino, Elisabetta in Don Carlos, the title role in Aida, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, the title role in Norma, Ottavia in L'incoronazione di Poppea and Alceste. At La Scala, she also appeared as the First Woman of Canterbury in the world premiere of Pizzetti's L'assassinio nella cattedrale in 1958.
In 1956, as Francesca in Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini. She sang in other American opera houses as well, but never at the Metropolitan Opera, despite discussions about her being engaged to sing Tosca there, also in 1956.
She sang Chopin's Polish songs in Paris with Nikita Magaloff, in a Liszt-Bartók concert at La Scala and a concert involving 'operas about Turks' in the Venetian carnival at La Fenice Theatre, showing her innovative character as an opera singer. In 1985, she retired from the operatic stage with Gnecco's La Prova di un'opera seria at La Fenice. She continued to appear in concerts until 1992. She was still active as of 2007, and had recently been appointed by La Scala's music director Riccardo Muti to run its school for young artists.
Throughout her career, Gencer was particularly well known for her Donizetti, including Belisario, Poliuto, Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia, Maria Stuarda and Caterina Cornaro. Her most acclaimed and best-known performance, though, was the Roberto Devereux she sang in Naples in 1964.
In addition to the bel canto roles for which she is best known, Gencer's repertory also included works by such composers as Prokofiev, Mozart and Puccini. She appeared in many rarely performed operas, including Smareglia's La Falena, Rossini's Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, Spontini's Agnese di Hohenstaufen, Pacini's Saffo and Gluck's Alceste.
Gencer rose to international stardom in a short time, singing under some of the greatest Italian maestros such as Vittorio Gui, Tullio Serafin, Gianandrea Gavazzeni and Riccardo Muti. She contributed to the improvement of the 'Donizetti Renaissance' with her great performances of Donizetti's forgotten operas.
Her repertoire consisted of 72 roles, including operas by Monteverdi, Gluck, Mozart, Cherubini, Spontini, Simon Mayr, Puccini, Prokofiev, Britten, Poulenc, Menotti and Rocca, encompassing lyric, coloratura and dramatic soprano roles.
Starting in 1982, she dedicated herself to teaching young opera singers. She worked as didactic art director of As.Li.Co. of Milan between 1983 and 1988, and was appointed by Maestro Riccardo Muti to run La Scala's School for Young Artists in 1997-1998. As artistic director of the academy for opera artists in Teatro alla Scala, she specialized in teaching operatic interpretation.
Gencer is known as the 'last diva of the 20th century'. She achieved a strong presence in the opera world not only by the variety of her repertoire but also with the dramatic nuances she brought to her many roles. A good researcher as well as a good teacher, she reintroduced many forgotten Romantic operas to the stage. In 1996, she made a spectacular appearance in Jan Schmidt-Garre's film Opera Fanatic.
She died on May 10, 2008 in Milan. Following the funeral service in San Babila Church and subsequent cremation in Milan, her ashes were brought to Istanbul and scattered in the waters of the Bosphorus Strait on May 16, according to her wish.
- Bellini: Norma / 1966, de Fabritiis, Gencer, Cossotto, et al.
- Bellini: Norma / 1965, Gavazzeni, Gencer, Simionato, et al.
- Bellini: Beatrice di Tenda1964 / Gui, Gencer, Zanasi, et al.
- Bellini: I Puritani 1961 / Quadri, Gencer, Raimondi, et al.
- Pacini: Saffo 1967 / Gencer, Del Bianco, Mattiucci
- Cherubini: Medea 1968/ Gencer, Bottion, et al.
- Mayr: Medea in Corinto 1976/ Ferro, Gencer, Johns
- Gluck: Alceste 1967/ Gui, Gencer, Picchi
- Chopin: Polish Songs; Liszt / Leyla Gencer, Nikita Magaloff
- Donizetti: Anna Bolena 1958/ Gavazzeni, Gencer, Simionato, et al.
- Donizetti: Anna Bolena 1965/ Gavazzeni, Gencer, Cava, et al.
- Donizetti: Caterina Cornaro 1972 / Cillario, Gencer, Aragall
- Donizetti: Les Martyrs / 1975 Camozzo, Gencer, Bruson, et al.
- Donizetti: Les Martyrs / 1978 Gelmetti, Gencer, Bruson, et al.
- Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia / 1970 Gracis, Gencer, Raimondi et al.
- Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia / 1966 Franci, Gencer, Aragall, Petri et al.
- Donizetti: Maria Stuarda / 1967 Molinari-Pradelli, Gencer, Verret, Tagliavini et al.
- Donizetti: Messa di Requiem / Gavazzeni, Teatro La Fenice
- Donizetti: Roberto Devereux 1964 / Gencer, Cappuccilli, et al.
- Donizetti: Belisario 1969 / Gavazzeni, Gencer, Taddei et al.
- Mozart: Don Giovanni 1960/ Molinari-Pradelli, Gencer, Petri, Bruscantini, Stich-Randall et al.
- Mozart: Don Giovanni 1962/ Solti, Gencer, Jurinac, Freni
- Ponchielli: La Gioconda 1971 / de Fabritiis, Gencer, Raimondi
- Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini 1961 / Capuana, Gencer, Cioni et al.
- Rossini: Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra 1971/ Sanzogno, Gencer, Grilli
- Verdi: I due Foscari" 1957/ Serafin, Gencer, Guelfi
- Verdi: Battaglia di Legnano 1959/ Gencer, Limarilli
- Verdi: Rigoletto 1961/ Quadri, Gencer, McNeil, Raimondi
- Verdi: Gerusalemme 1963/ Gavazzeni, Gencer, Aragall, Guelfi
- Verdi: I Vespri Siciliani 1965/ Gavazzeni, Gencer, et al.
- Verdi: Macbeth 1960/ Gui, Gencer, Taddei, Picchi et al.
- Verdi: Macbeth 1968/ Gavazzeni, Gencer, Guelfi, Corradi, et al.
- Verdi: Attila 1972/ Silipigni, Gencer, Hines
- Verdi: Ernani 1972/ Gavazzeni, Gencer, Bergonzi
- Verdi: Simon Boccanegra 1961/ Gavazzeni, Gobbi, Gencer
- Verdi: Trovatore 1957/Previtali, Gencer, Del Monaco, Barbieri, Bastianini
- Verdi: Un ballo in maschera 1961/ Gencer, Bergonzi
- Verdi: Aida 1966/ Capuana, Gencer, Bergonzi, Cossotto
- Verdi: La Forza del Destino 1957/ Serafin, Gencer, Di Stefano
- Verdi: La Forza del Destino 1965/ Molinari Pradelli, Gencer, Bergonzi
- Leyla Gencer biography, performance chronology, discography and videography
- Leyla Gencer Voice Competition
- Biography with photo gallery
- Bel Canto Society page with Interview and photos
- Tribute of the Teatro alla Scala to Leyla Gencer
- Leyla Gencer in an excerpt from Anna Bolena (1978).
- Leyla Gencer Commemorative Coin (Lira)
- The Independent Leyla Gencer: Operatic soprano idolised in Italy
- The Guardian A Turkish soprano of great dramatic power, she excelled in a wide range of Italian opera
- Telegraph Imperious soprano known as the Turkish Diva who made a glittering career at La Scala.
- Times Turkish operatic soprano who excelled in bel canto and Verdi roles
- The New York Times Leyla Gencer, Turkish-Born Soprano and a Popular Star of La Scala, Dies
- Los Angeles Times Turkish soprano thrived in Italy
- International Herald Tribune Leyla Gencer
- Boston Herald Soprano Leyla Gencer, known as La Diva Turca, dies in Milan
- The Boston Globe Leyla Gencer; Turkish soprano made mark on Italian stage
- Denver Post Turkish soprano Gencer, who performed at La Scala, dies
- BBC Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer dies
- Turkish Daily News Turkish opera diva Leyla Gencer dies