Teresa Berganza, who has died aged 89, was a Spanish mezzo-soprano who won the hearts of British opera lovers in 1958 with a sensational debut as Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne; one critic wrote that she sang with “a charming mixture of childlike puzzlement and fretful longings, her roving eye holding a promise of danger”.
Blessed with an unmistakable voice that was dusky, sultry and sensuous, Teresa Berganza also had beautiful eyes that grew ever wider and darker as she embraced her role. While her Mozart was impeccable and her Rossini excellent, it was perhaps Carmen that best suited her timbre and personality, although it was not until 1977 that she tackled Bizet’s masterpiece with Plácido Domingo in an Edinburgh Festival production conducted by Claudio Abbado that they later recorded together.
Although diminutive in stature, Teresa Berganza could play the diva with the best of them. Herbert Breslin, Luciano Pavarotti’s American publicity representative, told how she refused to pay taxes in his country, which meant that her manager had to raise her fee above the amount she demanded to cover them. “He priced her almost out of competition, and consequently Berganza didn’t have as big a career over here as she might have,” Breslin added.
She also had a reputation for cancelling, something for which she was unapologetic. “I will never permit myself to sing under bad conditions when my voice is not ready to sing,” she said, adding that it was an approach shared by the conductor Carlos Kleiber and the pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. “We all cancel when we feel we are not ready to give our best.”
Teresa Berganza Vargas was born into an austere family in Madrid on March 16 1933 (many books incorrectly state 1935). She was the youngest of three children of Guillermo Berganza, a Left-wing atheist accountant who adored music and played trumpet and piano, and his royalist Catholic wife Ascension (née Vargas). “We were neither rich nor poor,” Berganza stated in her matter-of-fact manner. “But we never lacked for anything because, for my parents, our education was based on two values: love and humility.”
She learnt piano with her father, who arranged for her to have singing lessons with Lola Rodríguez Aragón, a pupil of the interwar German soprano Elisabeth Schumann. At their first session she was told to go home, lie on the floor with a pile of books on her chest and breathe deeply. “As my father was very literate, we had a whole collection of encyclopaedias,” she laughed. “I remember seeing my mother roll her eyes and say, ‘My daughter is going to go crazy’.”
As a teenager she spent several months in a convent contemplating a life of prayer, though many years later she described how she identified more with the liberated Carmen. “Of course, because of my strict education I could never be a Carmen,” she added. “I don’t suppose in truth I could ever share her character, but there’s undoubtedly something of her in me.”
At 17 she read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther – “and I wanted to be Charlotte”, the opposite of the free-spirited Carmen.
Her lessons continued at the Madrid Conservatory, from where she graduated in 1954 with the top prize for singers. The following year she gave a recital in Madrid and appeared in Milan with the great Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff.
In July 1957 she made her operatic debut at the Aix-en-Provence Festival as Dorabella in Mozart’s Così fan tutte with Teresa Stich-Randall as her sister Fiordiligi. “Berganza’s singing … was one of the great moments of the evening,” observed Opera magazine.
The following year she came to face to face with two other divas in the form of Maria Callas and Jon Vickers when they were cast together by Dallas Opera in Cherubini’s Medea.
Having made her British debut in Glyndebourne’s Marriage of Figaro in 1958, Teresa Berganza was due to return to the role there the following year but was expecting a baby and had to withdraw. Earlier in the season she sang Rossini’s La Cenerentola, looking somewhat incongruous as a pregnant Cinderella. The Queen Mother was in the audience on the opening night.
She was heard at the Royal Opera House in 1960 as Rosina in the company’s first postwar production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. Josephine Veasey was also in the cast and both women had babies, leading to some amused press speculation about the need for a crèche at Covent Garden. That aside, the critics were impressed. “She is young and vivacious and Spanish; she can sing,” declared one. “What more can anyone ask of Rosina?”
Teresa Berganza’s star continued to rise. She recorded Handel’s Alcina with Joan Sutherland in 1960 and made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, as Cherubino in 1967, although her only other role there was Rosina the following year.
Her 1977 recording of Carmen heralded a series of appearances in that role: Hamburg in 1980; San Francisco in 1981; and Covent Garden in 1984, though now with José Carreras rather than Domingo as Don José.
Early in her career Teresa Berganza could be somewhat disorganised. On the day of her first major recital in Paris, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, she was asleep in her hotel room when an anxious conductor called 15 minutes before curtain up. “I only had time to put on the first outfit I found, my mother lent me a shawl and I arrived perspiring, with no make-up and not warmed up,” she recalled, but added: “It was a triumph.”
Only rarely was she the victim of mishaps such as falling scenery, but once she was in a Rossini opera at La Scala in Milan in which the staging called for visible rain. “I was making an entrance doing my recitative, and I ran faster and faster and began to slip on the wet floor,” she said. As she fell over and stopped singing, the audience gasped as one. It was, she noted, one way to ensure that they hung on to her every movement during the rest of the performance.
Her memoir, Flor de Soledad Y Silencio (Flowers of Loneliness and Silence) was published in Spanish in 1984. She appeared in several films, including a televised Carmen in 1980 with Domingo, and was involved in the opening ceremonies for Expo ’92 in Seville and the Barcelona Olympics. Two years later she was the first woman to be elected to the Spanish Royal Academy of Arts. One of her final recitals was with her daughter, the soprano Cecilia Lavilla, at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona in 2002.
Teresa Berganza liked to say that if music is a religion, then its gods are the composers, from Monteverdi to Shostakovich – “And Mozart is my Messiah … Call me a mystic, I don’t mind, I’m not called Teresa for nothing.”
Like most singers she detested being around smokers and once threatened to cut her nails in front of one so that the clippings would drop into his beer glass. “And if he is surprised, I will say, ‘Does it bother you?’ ”
Speaking to an Australian journalist in 1994 she confided that when the time came, she would be ready for death. “I’ve had a wonderful life. But I think of another life, just as beautiful, where I will see my parents and the others I have lost in life.” Asked if she would still be a singer in Heaven, she replied with her trademark widening eyes: “There are more important singers than me there. I’ll be in the chorus.”
In 1957 Teresa Berganza married Félix Lavilla, a Spanish pianist and composer. They had met when he accompanied her in recital; he waited to propose until their first performance was over and they were on the train to their next one.
The marriage was dissolved in 1977, a separation that she said was inspired by playing the liberated Carmen, and in 1986 she married José Rifa, a priest she had consulted about her separation. He later returned to the church and she turned instead to yoga and meditation. She had a son and two daughters from her first marriage.
Teresa Berganza, born March 16 1933, died May 13 2022