Leyla Gencer, one of the greatest sopranos of the 20th century, was born in İstanbul. She started her formal education at the İstanbul Municipal Conservatoire and was later trained by renowned Italian soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and Apollo Granforte. Gencer performed with Ankara State Opera and Ballet Chorus until she made her operatic debut as Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana in 1950. In only a few years, Gencer had become a recognised performer, and was regularly invited to perform at ceremonies of the Turkish Government.
Leyla Gencer made her Italian debut at Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, once again performing as Santuzza, returning, the following year, to Naples to perform in Madame Butterfly and Eugene Onegin. On January 26, 1957 Gencer made her debut at the world famous Teatro alla Scala in Milan, as Lidoine in the world premiere of Poulenc's Les Dialogues des Carmelites.
A memorable moment in 1957 was her performance of the final part of Verdi's Requiem during Toscanini's Memorial Ceremony held in Milan Duomo Cathedral, together with Teatro alla Scala Chorous and Orchestra, conducted by Victor De Sebata to attendants amazed by her rendition of the piece. Later that year, in July, she performed the leading part in La Forza Del Destino, during the Cologne tour of Teatro alla Scala.
Between 1957-1980, the acclaimed soprano sang in various leading roles at Teatro alla Scala in Verdi's Don Carlos, La Forza Del Destino, Aïda, Macbeth, Simon Boccanegra, I Vespri Siciliani; Bellini's Norma; Donizetti's Poliuto, Lucrezia Borgia; Mozart's Idomeneo; Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea; Gluck's Alceste; Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades; and Britten's Albert Herring. She also performed the leading role in the world premiere of Pizzetti's L'Assassinio nella Cattedrale in 1958, at Teatro alla Scala.
Having achieved an international career in a very short time and performed with distinguished Italian maestros such as Vittorio Gui, Tulio Serafin, Gianandrea Gavazzeni and Riccardo Muti, Gencer's outstanding performances of Donizetti's forgotten operas inscribed her name in all opera books identifying the great soprano with the "Donizetti Renaissance."
Gencer's extensive repertoire consists of 72 roles including works from composers such as Monteverdi, Gluck, and Mozart to neo-classical period; from Cherubini, Spontini, Mayr and the romantic period to Puccini, Prokofiev, Britten, Poulenc, Menotti and Rocca; within a broad array from lyric soprano to dramatic coloratura.
Her performances of Chopin's lyric compositions with Nikita Magaloff in Paris, and of Liszt-Bartók at La Scala as well as her concert programme within the Venice Carnival at La Fenice Theatre compiling parts from several operas thematising Turks, demonstrate her innovative and meticulous character as an opera singer.
Leyla Gencer bid her farewell to the opera scene in 1985 with her performance of Francesco Gnecco's La Prova di un'Opera Seria at La Fenice Theatre, though she continued singing at concerts and recitals until 1992.
From 1982 on, Leyla Gencer dedicated herself to the education of young opera artists. She worked as the Didactic Artistic Director of As.Li.Co. of Milan between 1983-88 and was appointed by Maestro Riccardo Muti to run La Scala's School for Young Artists between 1997-98. Until her passing in 2008, Gencer was the Artistic Director of the academy for opera artists in Teatro alla Scala, where she was also teaching opera interpretation. She also served as the president of İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts' board of trustees.
Leyla Gencer achieved her remarkable presence in the opera world not only by the variety of her repertoire, but also with the dramatic nuances that she attributed to the roles she performed. A dedicated researcher and teacher, she reintroduced many forgotten works of the romantic period to the opera stages.
Gencer was the glorious primadonna of La Scala for 25 years, an era during which legendary names such as Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Monserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills reigned in the opera world. About her extraordinary career, it would only be moderate to reiterate the words of Michel Parouty from Opéra Magazine: "She was the last diva of the 20th century, an embodiment of perfection."