Teresa Zylis-Gara, versatile and passionate soprano who conquered Glyndebourne and was a fixture at the New York Met – obituary

Teresa Zylis-Gara - Wojtek Laski/Getty Images
Teresa Zylis-Gara - Wojtek Laski/Getty Images

Teresa Zylis-Gara, who has died aged 91, was a celebrated Polish soprano with a full-blooded and lustrous voice who was capable of extraordinary flexibility; while she sang lyrically, such as on an Erato disc of Chopin songs released in 1983, she could also apply herself to the dramatic challenges of operas such as Verdi’s Il trovatore or Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

She made her British debut at Glyndebourne in 1965 singing Octavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier opposite the Marschallin of Montserrat Caballé – who was also making her British debut but had irritated the conductor John Pritchard by arriving a week late for rehearsals and not knowing a single note of her part.

According to one critic Teresa Zylis-Gara was not ideal for this trouser role, “since she exhales strong and voluptuous feminine charm”; nevertheless, her voice was “lovely, and she has a vivid feeling for words and music”.

Returning to Glyndebourne in 1967, she gave a beautifully articulated account of Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a role she reprised in 1969 with Tito Gobbi at Covent Garden. The previous year she had appeared there as a “touching and altogether attractive” Violetta in La Traviata.

Yet much of Teresa Zylis-Gara’s career was spent at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she was first heard in 1968, again as Donna Elvira, and was welcomed by Harold Schoenberg in the New York Times as “a fine acquisition”. Two years later she accepted a long-term contract from Rudolf Bing, the Met’s general manager, appearing there every season until 1984 in repertoire ranging from Mozart and Puccini to Tchaikovsky and Wagner.

She did not, however, take every part that was offered, telling the Los Angeles Times that she had once turned down Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz. “Agathe is simply too one-sided,” she said. “I do not regard myself as the insipid, Germanic virgin type.”

At a gala concert in 1972 to honour Bing she sang the love duet from Verdi’s Otello with the tenor Franco Corelli, with whom she was rumoured to be having an affair, something that he later appeared to confirm. “People assume that in old age I am hearing Verdi and Puccini in my mind’s ear,” he told his biographer. “No! The music I am hearing and that keeps me going is the sound of Teresa Zylis-Gara having orgasms.”

Teresa Zylis-Gara was born in Landvarov (now known as Lentvaris, near Vilnius, in Lithuania) on January 23 1930. She studied in what is now Lviv and in 1953 won a national competition for young singers in Warsaw. Work in the opera house was hard to come by at first and instead she briefly took up dentistry.

At the Paris Opera in 1979 - Wojtek Laski/Getty Images
At the Paris Opera in 1979 - Wojtek Laski/Getty Images

She made her debut in Krakow in 1956 as the eponymous heroine in Halka by the Polish composer Stanislaw Moniuszko, though by her own account she was not quite ready for such a role. “What I could offer was a fresh, uncontaminated voice with a nice timbre and an incredible amount of enthusiasm and passion for music, and singing in particular,” she said.

The following year she returned to Krakow in Madama Butterfly, a role she took to heart, on one occasion crying on stage at Cio-Cio San’s plight. “It was terrible. When you cry you can’t sing,” she told The Atlanta Constitution. “I’m a very emotional and sentimental person myself and when I do a role, I try to interpret it as if it were happening to me privately. I try to be very real, very human.” On another occasion she was singing the part in Detroit when her performance was disrupted by a streaker in the balcony – but “of course I continued to sing”.

A third place at the ARD competition in Munich in 1960 brought her to the attention of German ears and led to an intentionally low-key debut at Oberhausen in 1962. But word of her gifts quickly spread and she was soon appearing at opera houses in Berlin, Vienna and Düsseldorf, where for many years she kept a home.

'I’m a very emotional and sentimental person myself and when I do a role, I try to interpret it as if it were happening to me privately' - Wojtek Laski/Getty Images
'I’m a very emotional and sentimental person myself and when I do a role, I try to interpret it as if it were happening to me privately' - Wojtek Laski/Getty Images

After joining the Met she made only a handful of further visits to Covent Garden, including another Don Giovanni in 1976 with Geraint Evans and Ruggero Raimondi; as Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in 1977 with Hermann Prey, Teresa Stratas and Thomas Allen; and as Desdemona in Otello with Jon Vickers in 1980. However, she is well represented on recordings, ranging from Bach’s St Matthew Passion for EMI to the Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos conducted by Rudolf Kempe.

Teresa Zylis-Gara had many ways to keep her voice and skin in top condition, including mixing a mysterious brew of Polish herbs into her bath tub, or blending them with water, honey or egg yolk depending on the kind of facial treatment she needed. These “packages of beauty” were sent by her sister in Poland. “There are not so many chemical things, and I think this is good,” she said, explaining why she preferred them to commercial make-up.

By the early 1980s she was living in Monaco, where in retirement she taught students from around the world. She was married to an engineer and had a son, who was largely brought up by his grandmother in Poland. “It’s impossible to be a wife, mother and artist of international fame all at one time,” she declared. “I chose to be the artist.”

Teresa Zylis-Gara, born January 23 1930, died August 28 2021