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Leyla Gencer; Turkish soprano made mark on Italian stage

Leyla Gencer performed during Giuseppe Verdi's 'Aida.' Ms. Gencer was known as La Diva Turca, the Turkish Diva. Leyla Gencer performed during Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida." Ms. Gencer was known as La Diva Turca, the Turkish Diva. (Teatro alla Scala via Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Suzan Fraser
Associated Press / May 11, 2008

ANKARA, Turkey - Soprano Leyla Gencer, who made her career at Italy's famed La Scala opera house, has died in Milan, officials said yesterday. She was 80.

The singer known as La Diva Turca - the Turkish Diva - died Friday of respiratory problems and heart failure at home in Milan, La Scala and the Turkish State Opera and Ballet said.

La Scala expressed "immense sorrow" over Ms. Gencer's death and said the singer had "one of the most emotional voices of any time."

It said in a statement that her performances at La Scala had provided "years of unrepeatable splendor."

Ms. Gencer was born in Istanbul in 1928 to a Polish mother and a Turkish father.

She studied privately in Ankara, the Turkish capital, with Italian opera singer Giannina Arangi Lombardi and made her operatic debut there in 1950, cast as Santuzza in Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" ("Rustic Chivalry") - a role she would later reprise on world stages.

Ms. Gencer, a contemporary of opera legends Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, made her La Scala debut in 1957, playing Madame Lidoine in the premiere of Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues des Carmelites."

She moved to the Milanese opera house after successful performances in "Madame Butterfly" and Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" in Naples.

Her repertoire during a career spanning some 30 years included more than 70 roles. At La Scala, she was cast as the first woman of Canterbury in the world premiere of Pizzeti's "L'Assasinio nella Cattedralle" ("Murder in the Cathedral"). A debut at the Royal Opera House, in London, came in 1962 when she performed Elisabetta in "Don Giovanni."

"Leyla Gencer, a world artist, had become our honor in the international scene and has inscribed her name on the history of opera," said Ertugrul Gunay, the culture minister.

"The Turkish opera, the international art world, have lost a great personality. She was one of the most important opera singers of the 20th century," said Rengim Gokmen, director of the Turkish State Opera and Ballet.

After retiring from opera in 1985, the singer devoted herself to discovering and training young talent. An annual Turkish-sponsored voice competition is named after her.

"Even if in her finals years she was not able to go on stage, she became a leader for Turkish opera stars and trained them," Gokmen said. "We owe her a lot."

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