Ayşe Leyla Gencer (10 October 1928 – 10 May 2008) was a Turkish operatic soprano.
Gencer was a notable bel canto soprano who spent most of her career in Italy, from the early 1950s through the mid-1980s, and had a repertoire encompassing more than seventy roles. She made very few commercial recordings; however, numerous bootleg recordings of her performances exist. She was particularly associated with the heroines of Donizetti.
In 1953, Gencer made her Italian debut at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples as Santuzza. She returned to Naples the following year for performances of Madama Butterfly and Eugene Onegin. In 1957, she made her debut at La Scala in Milan as Mme. Lidoine in the world premiere of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. She went on to appear regularly at La Scala, performing nineteen roles between 1957 and 1983 including Leonora in La forza del destino, Elisabetta in Don Carlos, the title role in Aida, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, the title role in Norma, Ottavia in L’incoronazione di Poppea and Alceste. At La Scala, she also appeared as the First Woman of Canterbury in the world premiere of Pizzetti’s L’assassinio nella cattedrale in 1958. In 1960, she toured the USSR, singing concerts in Moscow and Baku.
In 1962, she debuted at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as Elisabetta di Valois in Don Carlos and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. Her United States debut had been at the San Francisco Opera in 1956, as Francesca in Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini. She sang in other American opera houses as well, but never at the Metropolitan Opera, despite discussions about her being engaged to sing Tosca there, also in 1956.
She sang Chopin’s Polish songs in Paris with Nikita Magaloff, a Liszt-Bartók concert at La Scala, and a concert involving ‘operas about Turks’ in the Venetian carnival at La Fenice, showing her innovative character as an opera singer. Her last appearance on the operatic stage was in 1985, with La Prova di un’opera seria at La Fenice. She continued to appear in concerts until 1992. She was still active as of 2007, and had recently been appointed by La Scala’s music director Riccardo Muti to run its school for young artists.
Throughout her career, Gencer was particularly well known for her Donizetti, including Belisario, Poliuto, Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia, Maria Stuarda and Caterina Cornaro. Her most acclaimed and best-known performance, though, was the Roberto Devereux she sang in Naples in 1964.
Gencer died on 10 May 2008, aged 79, in Milan. Following her funeral service in San Babila Church and subsequent cremation in Milan, her ashes were brought to Istanbul and scattered in the waters of the Bosporus on May 16, by famous musician Fazil Say, according to her wish.