Leyla Gencer had a major career on the world's operatic stages, singing a wide variety of soprano roles from Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni to Renata in Prokofiev's very difficult The Fiery Angel. She was most closely associated, however, with the operas of Donizetti (Belisario, Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, and Lucrezia Borgia), as well as a number by Verdi and Bellini.
Born to a Polish mother and wealthy Turkish father on October 10, 1928 (according to Gencer; some sources place the date earlier), Gencer received the finest education in her childhood and teens. She exhibited unusual vocal talent early on, and her mother enrolled her in the Istanbul Conservatory, but not just for vocal and music studies: she wanted to thwart 16-year-old Leyla's affections for a Polish architect over twice her age.
Gencer married a wealthy banker in 1946 and soon withdrew from the Conservatory to study with Italian soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi in Istanbul. In the meantime she sang in the Turkish State Theater Chorus.
Gencer's debut came in the role of Santuzza from Cavalleria Rusticana in 1950 in Ankara. After Arangi-Lombardi's death in 1951, Gencer began studies with Apollo Granforte and soon gave many noteworthy recitals in Turkey, including for important government functions, such as receptions for heads of state, including one for American President Dwight Eisenhower.
She reprised the role Santuzza for her 1953 Italian debut, and for her American debut in 1956 at San Francisco she sang Francesca in Rachmaninov's Francesca da Rimini. At La Scala she appeared in two important world premieres in 1957, Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites and Pizzetti's L'assassino nella cattedrale. In her debut season at Covent Garden (1962) she sang Elisabetta di Valois from Verdi's Don Carlo and Donna Anna from Mozart's Don Giovanni.
Gencer would return to La Scala for regular appearances until 1983 and was active in opera throughout Italy, other parts of Europe and in the United States until 1985, her last appearance being at Venice's La Fenice in Gnecco's La Prova di un 'opera seria. She continued giving recitals until 1992, and thereafter remained active at La Scala heading the theater's school for young artists. A competition was established in her honor in 1996, the Yapy Kredi International Leyla Gencer Voice Competition. Gencer made numerous recordings -- many still available -- and once boasted a 72-role repertory.