Teresa Berganza, charismatic star of the opera stage, dies at 89
By Jonathan Kandell
Teresa Berganza, a Spanish mezzo-soprano and contralto renowned for her roles in the operas of Rossini and Mozart, and especially for the title role in Bizet’s “Carmen,” died Friday in Madrid. She was 89.
Her family confirmed the death in a statement to newspaper El País.
A dramatic figure with flashing dark eyes, Berganza was acclaimed as a coloratura mezzo and contralto, with a vocal register that was warm at its lower range and supple at its higher end. Her vast repertoire as a recitalist included German lieder, French and Italian art songs and, most notably, Spanish music — zarzuelas, arias and Gypsy ballads — which she consistently championed.
In addition to exuding charisma and sensuality, Berganza embraced a disciplined, analytical approach to her roles. “For the most part, she sings exactly what is written in perfect pitch and accurate rhythm,” Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times wrote in a review of Berganza’s performance in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” at the San Francisco Opera in 1969. He lauded her as “one of the most gifted of coloratura singers.”
Berganza viewed her growth as a diva as a deliberate progression from Rossini to Mozart and finally to Bizet. “Rossini for his technique, agility, and Mozart for his style, his soul,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Un Monde Habité par le Chant” (“A World Inhabited by Song”), written with Olivier Bellamy and published in 2013. Only after feeling confident about works by those composers did she attempt “Carmen” — with great success. Conductor Herbert von Karajan declared her “the Carmen of the century.”
Teresa Berganza Vargas was born in Madrid on March 16, 1933, to parents who reflected Spain’s deep divisions on the eve of its civil war. Her father, Guillermo Berganza, an accountant, was an atheist who favored left-wing causes. Her mother, Ascensión Vargas, a homemaker with two older children, Guillermo and Ascensión, was a deeply religious Roman Catholic, a monarchist and a supporter of future dictator Francisco Franco.
Encouraged by her mother, Berganza aspired to become a nun when she was an adolescent. She attended the Royal Conservatory of Music in Madrid, where she hoped her piano, organ and vocal studies would prepare her to lead a convent choir or teach music at a religious school.
It was her voice tutor, Lola Rodríguez Aragón, who convinced her that she was too talented to retreat from a secular life. Under her instruction, Berganza won first prize for voice at the conservatory in 1954. She continued to consult and practice with Rodríguez Aragón throughout her career.
Berganza also met her future husband, Félix Lavilla, a piano student, at the Madrid conservatory. He became her longtime accompanist at recitals. They had three children, Teresa, Javier and Cecilia, but their marriage ended after two decades.
Berganza turned for spiritual guidance to José Rifá, a Spanish priest who had long admired her singing. He quit the priesthood to marry her, and he regularly introduced himself as Mr. Berganza. They divorced after 10 years.
Complete information about survivors was not immediately available.
Teresa Berganza made her operatic debut as Dorabella in Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” in 1957 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France. In 1958, she made her first appearance at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala as Isolier in Rossini’s “Le Comte Ory.” The next year she debuted at Covent Garden in London as Rosina in Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” which would become one of her signature roles. Critics delighted in her rich, fluid contralto voice, which easily handled the complex embellishments demanded of Rossini heroines.
In 1967, Berganza made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Cherubino in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” It would become yet another popular role for her.
For years, Berganza declined offers to perform the lead in “Carmen,” saying that she found the complexity of the character too intimidating. She finally agreed to take it on in 1977, at the King’s Theater in Edinburgh, Scotland. In preparation, she studied the 1845 novella “Carmen,” by Prosper Mérimée, on which the opera was based, as well as the libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy.
She then spent weeks in southern Spain interviewing women living in the caves outside Granada to, as she put it, “better understand Gypsy life.” Rejecting the more traditional portrayal of Carmen as a prostitute, she chose to play her instead as a rebellious Gypsy. “She speaks with her heart, her body, her guts,” Berganza wrote in her autobiography.
Reviewing a Carnegie Hall recital in November 1982, Times critic Donal Henahan wrote, “The Berganza voice, always a wonder of suppleness and dark polish, has now become, if anything, more excitingly robust and dramatic.”
Berganza, he added, had also become a superior actor. He praised her intense reading of Joseph Haydn’s “Arianna auf Naxos,” a cantata that demands frequent sudden changes in emotional expression, which she followed with a witty rendering of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Nursery” cycle, in which she alternately portrayed the child and the nurse.
In the days leading up to a stage performance, Berganza would go to extremes to protect her voice. When her children were still young, she wore a scarf over her mouth to remind them she wasn’t supposed to speak. Instead, she wrote notes to answer their questions or give them instructions. At night, fearful of tobacco smoke, she avoided restaurants.
When she was performing away from Madrid, she began each day singing warm-ups in her hotel bathroom. “If the notes are not there, I am in agony the whole day,” she said in a 2005 interview with Le Figaro.
Fittingly, Berganza’s last opera performance, at age 57, was in “Carmen” at the Teatro de la Maestranza in Seville, Spain, not far from the former tobacco factory that was the setting for the Carmen story. Plácido Domingo conducted and José Carreras played the role of Don José, the jilted lover who kills Carmen, in that 1992 production.
Berganza would continue to give recitals into her 70s.
She insisted she had no regrets about not having been born a soprano, which would have given her the opportunity for many more leading stage roles. She preferred being a mezzo, she said, just as she favored the more mellow sound of a cello over a violin. “If I could not sing,” she wrote in her autobiography, “I would want to be a cellist.”