Plush-voice Polish soprano Teresa Zylis-Gara dies at 91

Teresa Zylis-Gara, a Polish soprano who displayed a lavish voice, impressive versatility, and beguiling stage presence during a three-de...


Teresa Zylis-Gara, a Polish soprano who displayed a lavish voice, impressive versatility, and beguiling stage presence during a three-decade international career that included a stretch at the Metropolitan Opera during its heyday in the 1970s, died on August 28 in Lodz, Poland. She was 91 years old.

His death was announced by the Polish National Opera.

In her early years, Ms. Zylis-Gara was primarily a lyrical soprano who excelled in Mozart and other roles suited to a lighter voice. But as she developed more richness and body in her sound, she turned to the lirico-spinto repertoire, which calls for dramatic force as well as lyricism, including the title role. of Puccini’s “Tosca”, Tatiana in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and Elisabeth in Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”.

His repertoire ranged from Baroque, including works by Claudio Monteverdi, to the 20th century cuisine of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. She also defended the songs of her compatriot Chopin, works which had been surprisingly neglected.

For some fans and opera critics, Ms. Zylis-Gara’s voice, while beautiful, lacked distinctiveness. And in seeking refinement, she was sometimes considered too sober. Peter G. Davis of the New York Times described this blend of qualities in a mostly glowing review of her performance as Pamina in Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” at the Met in 1970.

Her “cold, silvery voice does not possess a wide range of colors or any particular individuality,” wrote Mr. Davis, “but it is a beautiful thing to hear in itself, and she sculpted Mozart’s melodies with grace and elegance”. In addition to “the naturally feminine warmth and charm,” said Mr. Davis, she “added a pleasant note of humor in her opening scenes and some truly tragic pathos later. “

Two years later, reviewing a Met production of Verdi’s “Otello” which toured Boston, critic Ellen Pfeifer wrote in The Boston Globe that Ms. Zylis-Gara’s Desdemona was “a fiery, mature young woman instead of the usual teenage violet. “Her singing, Ms. Pfeifer added,” was beautiful, full, with the required transparency and flexibility. “

In a revealing 1974 interview with The Atlanta Constitution, Ms. Zylis-Gara spoke about the risks of being overly emotional in performance. At the time, she was in Atlanta to sing the title role of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and she remembers crying on stage during one particularly intense scene while playing the role as student.

“It was terrible,” she said. “When you cry, you can’t sing. Since that time, I have never allowed myself to go this far, but it is always a danger for me.

Teresa Geralda Zylis was born on January 23, 1930 in Landwarow, Poland, now Lentvaris, Lithuania, near Vilnius. She was the youngest of five children of Franciszek and Jadwiga Zylis; his father was a railway worker, his mother a housewife.

After the region’s political reconstruction after the war, the family moved to Lodz, Poland, in 1946. Teresa, 16, decided to devote herself to singing and began nine years of study with Olga Ogina.

She won first prize at the 1954 Polish Young Singers Competition in Warsaw, which led to engagements with Polish National Radio and, in 1956, her professional debut with the Krakow Opera in the title role of “Halka By the 19th century Polish composer. Stanislaw Moniuszko, essential in the Polish lyrical repertoire. Further awards over the next few years in Toulouse, France, and Munich led to engagements with opera houses in Oberhausen, Dortmund and Düsseldorf in West Germany.

Determined to advance her career, she made professional decisions that affected her personal life, as she explained in the 1974 interview.

She had married Jerzy Gara, director of a technical school in Lodz, in 1954. The following year, their son, also named Jerzy, was born. But it turned out “to be impossible to be wife, mother and internationally renowned artist all at the same time,” she said.

“I chose to be the artist,” she added. “I accept my choice and everything that has happened in my private life as a result.”

When her son was 6, she left him in the care of his own mother in Lodz and moved to Germany to pursue her career, which prospered quickly. (Her marriage ended in divorce.)

“It’s something special to have a talent,” she said. “It comes with responsibility. She added, referring to her son: “I saw sometimes that he was not happy; and it is difficult.

He survives her, just like a granddaughter.

Ms. Zylis-Gara made a significant breakthrough in 1965 when she sang an acclaimed Octavian in a production of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Glyndebourne Festival in England, which led to her debut with the Paris Opera. the next year. In 1968, a banner year, Donna Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” became her calling card – or, as she put it in a 1969 interview with the Los Angeles Times, its “role of fate”. She sang Elvira for her debut at the Salzburg Festival (conducted by Herbert von Karajan), at the San Francisco Opera and, in December, at the Met.

Of the San Francisco performance, Los Angeles Times critic Martin Bernheimer wrote that Ms. Zylis-Gara “sang a Donna Elvira that easily stood up to comparison with recent top performers in this difficult role, Sena Jurinac and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf “.

At the Met, the cast included the formidable Cesare Siepi as Giovanni and Martina Arroyo as Donna Anna. In a Article 2015 in Opera News in which various opera professionals were asked to choose their favorite ‘diva debut’ at the Met, Ms. Arroyo chose Ms. Zylis-Gara’s Donna Elvira. “She sang so well, a pure voice just with style – one of the best Elviras, ”Ms. Arroyo said.

Met general manager Rudolf Bing quickly hired Ms. Zylis-Gara for future bookings. She then sang 232 performances with the company in 16 seasons, assuming 20 roles, including Marschallin in “Rosenkavalier”, Elisabeth and Elsa by Wagner (in “Lohengrin”), Mimi, Butterfly and Desdemona by Puccini and Tatiana by Tchaikovsky.

During the 1980s, Ms. Zylis-Gara continued to sing in the greatest houses of the world. Years later, she divided her time between a home in Monaco and visits to her native country, often sat on competition juries and enthusiastically taught emerging singers. When asked in an interview with Opera News in 2009 if she would ever say goodbye to opera, she claimed it “would never happen!”

“The stage lights won’t even go out for a second,” she said, “since I pass on my talented students all my artistic soul, my knowledge and my experience. “

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw.

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