Leylâ Gencer

One of the greatest opera singers of our time, Leylâ Gencer enchanted audiences with her voice and her dramatic power.

I knew of Leylâ Gencer from my student years in Istanbul, but had not met her. I watched her with admiration in the conservatory chorus directed by my music teacher at Galatasaray, Muhiddin Sadak, almost as if I could pick out her voice above the others. We were both in Ankara at more or less the same time in the early 1950s. The famous voice teacher, Arangi Lombardi, had discovered Leylâ in Istanbul and persuaded her to come to Ankara, where she became a close friend both of me and of my family. I saw her in every opera in which she performed there: Menotti’s ‘The Consul’, Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’, Mozart’s ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’, Adnan Saygun’s ‘Kerem’, Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’, Puccini’s ‘Tosca’. Leylâ first went abroad in 1953, to Italy, where she gave a recital on Italian radio and performed ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ in the open-air theater at Naples. From then on, her career was one brilliant success after another as Turkey’s honorary ambassador.

Leylâ Gencer created a revolution in opera, always choosing the hard way. Unlike other divas, she advanced on her own, without the support of wealthy sponsors, statesmen or members of the social elite, but rather by her own efforts, overcoming every obstacle, successfully passing every test. Rather than filling her concert programs with popular arias, she chose little known or forgotten works, giving listeners a taste of their beauty.
Two books have been written about her. The first is ‘Leylâ Gencer’, by her close friend Franca Cella, a music critic. I examined this book very carefully and found the names given of over seventy operas in which Leylâ performed. I too was writing a book at the time; more precisely, I was writing two books at once. The title of the first was going to be, ‘The Italian Stage in Turkey’, and of the second, ‘Turkey on the Italian Stage’. Leylâ Gencer’s persona was appropriate to both books. The first book discusses the theaters and opera houses built by Italians in Istanbul, the operas composed in Istanbul, and the Italian opera and theater companies that played in the city throughout the season, performing almost all the operas of Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi and other composers. Sometimes these operas premiered in Istanbul even before they were performed in capitals like London and Paris. Among them are some that have been completely forgotten today. Leylâ Gencer combed through the archives for these operas and resurrected them in extremely creative interpretations, and they became popular again through her. In the second chapter of the book I examine the subject of Turkey and Turks in the Italian stage arts (opera, theater, ballet). Leylâ Gencer was always proud of being Turkish. When she became a big name in opera, music and stage directors and opera managers always insisted that she take an Italian name in place of Leylâ. But she stoutly refused, saying, “I’m a Turk, an Anatolian.” And she always included an aria or two from an opera on the subject of Turks on her recital programs.
The second book about Leylâ Gencer is ‘A Novel of Passion: Leylâ Gencer’, published in 1992 by the professional writer, Zeynep Oral. This is an outstanding book, every line of which is based on fact but which reads like a fast-flowing novel. While she was writing the book, Zeynep Oral was a guest in Leylâ’s home in Italy, and they got on famously, like two noblewomen. The writer became acquainted with Leylâ Gencer’s circle, collecting opinions and praises of her, both oral and written, by famous orchestra conductors, stage directors, composers and critics from their letters and published writings. We read here about the battles Leylâ fought always to advance and reach the top, the ordeals she survived, the struggles she waged for her passion and how she was always vindicated in the end.
She was called ‘La Diva Turca’, ‘Leylâ La Turca’, ‘La Prima Donna Turca’ and ‘La Regina’, this last being a moniker she earned for singing so many roles as queens: Anna Bolena, Caterina Cornaro, Alceste, Maria Stuarda and the English Queen Elizabeth I as both Donizetti’s and Rossini’s heroine. But, as I learned from Zeynep Oral’s book, the Italians also coined an adjective from Leylâ Gencer’s surname, ‘Gencerate’, which connotes the effect that Leylâ created on her listeners with her spellbinding vibrato: a phenomenon that combined such a range of emotions as passion, fear and pity.

Leylâ Gencer appeared in concerts and performances in some 76 cities, and played in the operas of 31 different composers. She is endowed with two great gifts: her voice and her dramatic energy. And the two are closely related. Merely listening to Leylâ Gencer’s voice is not enough; you also need to see her perform.
Leylâ deposed the two famous divas of her time, Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas, and conquered the throne. In 1957 she was invited to sing ‘La Traviata’ at the San Francisco Opera and performed the role in four different cities in California. Maria Callas was already lined up to sing Donizetti’s ‘Lucia de Lammermoor’. But the capricious Callas sent word that she was cancelling just five or six days before the performance. The opera director was desperate and begged Leylâ to step in for Callas. Preparing for such an opera in only five days was almost unthinkable. But Leylâ, who didn’t have the heart to turn him down, agreed to take on the role. I was also in California at the time. Leylâ was exhausted; the biggest test of her entire career lay ahead of her. But I knew she would come through with flying colors, as indeed she did. Photographs of Callas and Leylâ appeared side by side in the New York Times with the captions, ‘Sour Puss’ and ‘Turkish Loukoum’ respectively.

We are grateful to Prof. Dr. Metin And and the Istanbul Foundation of Art and Culture for providing the visual materials.