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Leyla Gencer 

 “When you sing, you have to feel what you are saying.”

“I actually cried on stage. Once in a while a note would issue forth that was not orthodox. That’s why the American critics don’t like me. But I don’t care. They want a music with water and soap.”


Leyla Gencer told Stefan Zucker: “I gave more bad performances than good 

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 notice—Santuzza 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.


At La Scala, in Opera Fanatic

SZ: What were the most difficult moments of your career?

LG: There were lots of them that were more than difficult.

SZ: For example?

LG: Well, the first time I sang at La Scala, in I dialoghi delle Carmelitane. I had auditioned for Maestro Victor de Sabata, singing “O cieli azzurri,” with the C pianissimo. He was enchanted and signed me up right away. He said, “You’ll sing Aïda. Unfortunately he fell ill that year. A new artistic director arrived, and you know that when the staff changes, everything changes. In any case, the new artistic director didn’t think it was wise to give a little-known, relatively inexperienced young singer the leading role in an opera di repertorio, and so he offered me Madame Lidoine. I wasn’t happy about the change, but I accepted. It was La Scala, after all, and I wanted to sing there at all costs. When I had begun my career I had said to myself, “Either I’ll sing at La Scala or I won’t sing at all.”

SZ: Why?

LG: Because this was my ambition. I was very ambitious. Either I’ll have a great career or none.

Then, during rehearsals, the director, Margherita Wallman, didn’t like my performance. She said I was too aristocratic—La Sultana—that 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 want—how 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 brava—she 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: No.

SZ: Not even in New Jersey?

LG: I behaved like a Turkish princess in New Jersey?

SZ: According to Jerome Hines.

LG: Hines is a special case. He was acting like a barbarian.

SZ: How so?

LG: Because he was singing Attila.

SZ: He says you commandeered his dressing room.

LG: They gave me a dressing room in which the heating system wasn’t working properly; it was like a Turkish bath. I said, “I don’t want to stay in a Turkish bath. The humidity will ruin my voice.” So I went into another dressing room; I didn’t know it was his. And he was angry? I didn’t know that. He didn’t say anything to me.

SZ: He discussed the episode with me on the radio [see bottom of page for link to free Webcast of this program].

LG: He had a beard like yours. Why do you have such a long beard?

SZ: Would you like to cut it?

LG: Yes, I would cut it.

SZ: How come?

LG: All those curls there—it makes you look old. All the way around. The mustache, too—a bit smaller. You would look younger. You aren’t old; you’re young.

SZ: How did your interpretations compare to those of Italian singers?

LG: I had no tradition of opera, of singing, such as existed here in Europe, in Italy. 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.

SZ: Let’s suppose we are in the 1950s, and you are about to begin your career. What would you do differently?

LG: Nothing. Because that was a good period for me, vocally and technically. I prefer that period to the second period of Gencer.

SZ: Why?

LG: Because the singing was of a really extraordinary purity. They didn’t like it. When I sang pianissimo, for example, my soprano colleagues said, “Why are you singing pianissimo?” “Because that’s what’s written.” “No, this is Trovatore; you have to sing forte.” Where it was written pianissimo, I sang pianissimo. And so they assumed I had a small voice. They had grown up in the verismo era and believed you always had to sing forte, whereas I had the type of voice that would later become fashionable. I think I was ahead of the times. But there is an explanation for this.

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 nuance—a 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?

LG: Of course, the voice changes naturally. The repertoire a singer chooses influences it, just as do the unwise choices he makes. I’ve made mistakes, too. I didn’t limit myself to the lighter operas, but, given my penchant for the dramatic, I also sang highly dramatic ones, such as Macbeth, which I performed many times. I preferred to specialize in the 19th-century repertoire because I thought it most suited to my voice. I’ve always felt more at home in Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. I experimented with many repertoires and styles of singing and came to the conclusion that the 19th-century school was the best for me. And I continued in this repertoire. We should not force the voice. When a singer studies a work that he realizes is not suited to his particular vocal technique, he should drop it right there and go no farther. There is no point in trying to sing what you can’t sing well. Singers must be able to feel this. They have to be able to choose their repertoire wisely. Too often a young singer, eager for a career, will agree to sing anything, and after two years the voice is gone. This is what happens to young singers today. I sang for almost 40 years, don’t forget.

SZ: What were the mistakes?

LG: Mine? There were so many! (laughs) For example, I chose to sing a repertoire that was perhaps too strong for my voice. Naturally I had to force somewhat. With time the voice became wider and the basic color changed. Perhaps it acquired more dramatic force; before, it had been more lyric.

SZ: Did you still have a high F?

LG: (laughs) No, that disappeared after I left the conservatory. But I had a high E-flat for many years. But you have to be very careful. For example, in 1959, after singing Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel, I realized that I could no longer sing a high C. That famous pianissimo high C in Aida had become difficult for me. And so I dropped Fiery Angel from my repertoire after two performances.

SZ: Did the high C return?

LG: For a while, yes. But it slowly disappeared again. After all, I had begun to sing Macbeth, Vespri Siciliani, some verismo, Gioconda, for example.

SZ: Why did you vary vocal color from role to role?

LG: You must always seek to adapt the voice to the score. The voice must not be of one color alone. It must be like an artist’s palette and have many colors. You cannot sing Lucia and Forza with the same voice. They have different ranges of color, they express different sentiments. You must find the right expression and the right color. When I began to sing the more dramatic operas, my voice became thicker, the color more burnished and perhaps also more interesting.

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?

LG: She had the most imperfect voice in the world, but this doesn’t mean anything. She was full of flaws, but she had the sacred fire. She was wonderful. Where can you find her equal today? My magnificent colleague Price sang wonderfully, but could she transmit what Callas could?

SZ: Did the study of harmony inform your singing?

LG: Yes. Harmony teaches you something—not to read only the melody but to read everything—the orchestra as well. And so if you are a student, if you know harmony, you can also read the part of the orchestra, which will help you very much in your expression. It’s a great help because one hears how the part he is to sing is constructed.

SZ: I was afraid of you.

LG: Everyone is.

SZ: Why?

LG: Who knows? They say I have an air . . .

SZ: Yes.

LG: No, I’m very natural. That’s just my air, the impression I give.

SZ: Yes. I’ve heard that you are a donna imperiosa.

LG: Yes, I am imperious. That is, I say what I think.

LG: Con forza.

SZ: Still?

LG: Even now.

SZ: Examples?

LG: I’m never afraid of anyone.

SZ: I believe it.

LG: I am severe, yes; I’m demanding. But I’m not nasty or malicious.

SZ: Can you give examples?

LG: No, we don’t have time. Yes, I am severe. But I’ve grown a little sweeter with age—I think. Still, I say things I shouldn’t, yet I say them. It’s not a good idea, it doesn’t help things. I should be more diplomatic, more false. I’m not like that. At my age, I can’t change, can I?

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?

JH: At Symphony Hall, in Newark.

FC: When Italians come to America they always try to be temperamental.

SZ: Why is that?

FC: For publicity.

Stefan Zucker

(The Corelli/Hines exchange was excerpted from the “Opera Fanatic” radio show of March 3, 1990)

Download the complete essay, including the chest voice and vocal technique articles, in PDF format:

Opera Fanatic: Biographies, Opinions—and Dish