Born October 10, 1924, near Istanbul to a Polish Catholic mother and a wealthy Turkish Moslem father, Gencer received a classical European-style education. Her mother pulled her out of a lyceum at 16 because she had fallen in love with a 34-year-old Polish architect with whom she read Plato. Her mother enrolled her in a conservatory. Initially her range extended to F above high C, but a French voice teacher soon shortened it to the A below. She entered a vocal competition in Holland without success and, in 1946, married a banker. She was temperamental and difficult, but he loved her. She left the conservatory to study with Giannina Arangi Lombardi, meanwhile singing in the chorus of the Turkish State Theater.
Her opera debut was in Ankara, as Santuzza, in 1950. Arangi Lombardi promised to launch Gencer’s career in Italy but died in 1951. Still in Turkey, she took lessons from Apollo Granforte and was accompanied by Alfred Cortot. She gave a recital, was noticed by the government and began singing at official functions, such as receptions for Eisenhower, Tito and Adenauer. Wrapped around her little finger were the President of Turkey and other high government officials. They interceded on several occasions so that her Turkish commitments wouldn’t interfere with her foreign offers. She had a much publicized affair with American Ambassador George McGhee. Her Italian debut came about on short noticeSantuzza with the San Carlo’s 1953 summer season. From 1957, she appeared at La Scala, including in the world premieres of I dialoghi delle Carmelitane (Poulenc) and L’assassino nella cattedrale (Pizzetti).
Gencer performed in San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York (Carnegie Hall), Verona, Florence, Spoleto, Rome, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Brussels, London, Glyndebourne, Edinburgh, Oslo, Stockholm, Warsaw, Moscow, Leningrad, Buenos Aires and Rio.
In the 50s she sometimes had a mediocre breath span, inadequate breath support and a tendency to flat. Her middle voice didn’t really sound fresh. But she could be tender, plaintive and full of yearning. And she had ravishing high pianissimos, such as the C in “O patria mia,” and excellent coloratura. Her sound could be dark, almost husky, for heavy roles and limpid and lyric for light ones. As Lucia, in general she adopted a bright sound, reserving a darker quality for such moments as “il fantasma.”
Although it is not unusual for substantial voices to have good agility in general, I can think of few examples of their having good staccatos. (Sutherland, for instance, sometimes avoided singing them or sang them slowly.) Thus I was astonished on hearing Gencer emit the staccatos of a soprano leggero in “Regnava nel silenzio.”
In a 1957 film of Trovatore (BCS Video #5), she often sings with fragility and otherworldly inwardness. She supplicates beautifully, exhorts with wonderful urgency and conveys the pathos of the death scene more affectingly than any other Leonora on video or CD.
As both actress and musician her timing is exquisite. She adds some crescendo to impel phrases toward their most dissonant points, their harmonic climaxes. When there’s a tied note she supplies a pinch of crescendo at the tie so that you feel the pulse. (This last touch, not uncommon with instrumentalists, is rare with opera singers.) She has a good trill, also lovely fioritura, particularly in descending passages. Her voice has smalto (bloom, sheen, enamel)which it lost ten years later.
In Italy, foreigners usually were engaged only for works that couldn’t be well cast with Italians. In 1957 the country was not suffering from a dearth of Leonoras. Perhaps Italy cast Gencer in Verdi because she knew how to valorizzare la parola (to give value to the word), to make every syllable count.
Her 72-role repertory included operas by Prokofiev and Mozart (also concert works and songs), but she is best known for Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi.
She didn’t have chest resonance by nature but developed it for interpretive purposes. A literalist, she rarely embellished the Donizetti scores in which she came to specialize.
In Roberto Devereux (1964) she sang with a thrilling white-hot emotional intensity and used chest resonance amply. Her sound was at moments a bit spread in pitch. But she packed such a wallop and sang with such sizzle that the recording is one of the handful of memorable opera recordings since W.W.II.
In a 1966 Aïda (BCS Video #610A), Gencer’s performance is distinguished by the vigor of her rhythm, created by a feeling for precise rhythm relationships, also by swiftness of attack. As with other singers, her consonants are positioned just before the beat and her vowels begin right on the beat. Other singers’ consonants, however, take up more time. Notice how quickly her notes reach peak volume. This quick rise time enables her to minimize loss of volume of short notes and make a great deal out of, say, the 16th note in an emphatic passage with a dotted eighth and a 16th.
Aside from the occasional scoop, her intonation is better than most singers’. Her scale is even in power without the weakness low in the staff, around G and A, characteristic of most sopranos. Her chest voice is strong. She has good control over dynamics, including a pianissimo. Her vocal personality is fierce.
A huge number of her live performances have been issued on LP and CD.
SZ: What were the most difficult moments of your career?
Then, during rehearsals, the director, Margherita Wallman, didn’t like my performance. She said I was too aristocraticLa Sultanathat the character was a warm, motherly woman of the people, not a princess. But that’s the way she had directed me, and that’s the way I played it. Well, she complained about me. I was called into the head office, where they said, “The composer and the director say you are not suited to the part.” I went back to my hotel and cried. I telephoned my friend in San Francisco, Kurt Adler, and said, “At La Scala they say I’m not suited to Mère Lidoine.” Adler, who was a musician, said, “What do they mean, you’re not suited? You’re perfect for the part. You have a contract; they have to honor it. Say to them, ‘I want to audition in front of you and have you show me why I’m not suited.’” I telephoned the directors of La Scala and said, “I want to have an audition, with orchestra, in front of the entire staff, to see if they think I’m suited or not.” Two days previously Francis Poulenc had attended a recital I’d given for RAI and told me afterwards, “You were wonderful. You are perfect for my Mère Lidoine.” Then, two days later, he and Wallman complained I was not suited to the role. That’s the theater for you. These are the bitter moments.
I called Poulenc and said, “Maestro, come and accompany me at the piano and tell me what you wanthow you want the part sung.“ He came and said, “No, I didn’t say that, I didn’t mean. . . .” etc. He played the part from beginning to end, accompanying me. I said, “Was that all right?” He replied, “Yes, it was.” The audition was before the entire staff of La Scala, sovrintendente Antonio Ghiringhelli, artistic director Francesco Siciliani, Wallman, etc.on this very stage. [Gencer had said she would only do the interview at La Scala. We were seated in a box.] The orchestra was directed by Nino Sanzogno, who had been very good to me and who had faith in me. I sang well. Ghiringhelli said to Wallman, “I’m sorry, ma questa è molto bravashe is excellent. If you don’t want to direct, you don’t have to.” And she [Gencer, in a high, whiny voice] “I didn’t know. . . . I didn’t think. . . . She was playing the Turkish princess. . . .”
It went very well. I made my Scala debut as Lidoine. But I shed many tears over this incident.
SZ: Have you ever acted the Turkish princess offstage?
LG: He had a beard like yours. Why do you have such a long beard?
SZ: How did your interpretations compare to those of Italian singers?
SZ: Let’s suppose we are in the 1950s, and you are about to begin your career. What would you do differently?
The return to the school of bel canto singing was not without its problems. There was an emphasis on loud singing, on exaggeration. I sang with delicacy and nuancea style that in a few years everyone imitated.
Eventually, some of them even went too far. I won’t mention names, but there were singers who sang so softly you could no longer hear them. If you’re singing piano, the voice should maintain the same overtones as when you’re singing forte. It mustn’t change colors. This way, even when you’re singing in a vast space like the Verona Arena, if the overtones are the same, even your soft singing will pass through the orchestra and go out into space. If you sing piano correctly, your voice can be heard even in the Verona Arena. It’s possible for a pianissimo note to be heard more than a forte note; I know this from my own experience. And so you see, I was ahead of my time, singing as they did in the 19th century.
SZ: Did your voice change over the years?
SZ: What were the mistakes?
SZ: Did you still have a high F?
SZ: Did the high C return?
SZ: Why did you vary vocal color from role to role?
We artists are strange beasts, and sometimes we exaggerate when we wish to emphasize certain dramatic passages. I began to do that when I started working with maestros such as Gavazzeni [as early as 1958]. He demanded great intensity.
SZ: In the late 50s at La Scala you often were in the second cast. Callas was in the first. What do you think of her?
SZ: Did the study of harmony inform your singing?
SZ: I was afraid of you.
Corelli and Hines on Gencer
Franco Corelli: I sang four performances of Poliuto with Gencer, when she finished the run, taking over from Callas. She was beautiful to work with, sweet and polite.
Jerome Hines: I worked with Gencer at the tail end of her career, and she was not quite so gentle and sweet. I don’t think she intended to be gentle and sweet. She had her dresser running out the door in hysterics, crying. When she walked into the theater she decided she wanted my dressing room instead of hers and I was bumped out even though we were doing Attila and I had the title role. The stage director told her, “Now please, don’t stand there after the end of the aria and pose 30 seconds, waiting for applause. You must go off.” She agreed, but when the time came did as she darn pleased. For the ballroom scene I wanted to come in with a cheetah on a chain and arranged for the opera company to rent one. They are gentle, more or less, and more tamable than other leopards. But came the dress rehearsal and they told me the cheetah had caught cold (I think they were just chickening out). I entered the ballroom scene and sat down next to Gencer. She said, “Where’s the cheetah?” I said, “The cheetah caught cold and when they get sick they get nasty.” She smiled and said, “Just like me!” From that remark I took it that we were witnessing her usual behavior.
FC: Where did this happen?
(The Corelli/Hines exchange was excerpted from the “Opera Fanatic” radio show of March 3, 1990)
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© 2005 Bel Canto Society