Obituary: Teresa Berganza, spirited mezzo-soprano revered for her portrayal of Carmen

Blessed with a distinctive voice that was somber, sultry and sensual, Teresa Berganza, who died aged 89, also had beautiful eyes that grew larger and darker as she took on the role. While her Mozart was impeccable and her Rossini excellent, it was perhaps Carmen that best suited her timbre and personality.

Although Berganza was small in stature, she could play the diva with the others. Herbert Breslin, Luciano Pavarotti’s American public relations representative, said she refused to pay taxes in his country, which meant her manager had to increase her fee beyond what she was asking for. “He almost put her out of competition, and as a result, Berganza didn’t have as big a career over here as she might have,” Breslin said.

She also had a reputation for canceling, something she didn’t apologize for. “I will never allow myself to sing in bad conditions unless my voice is ready to sing,” she said. “We all quit when we feel we’re not ready to do our best.”

Teresa Berganza Vargas was born in Madrid on March 16, 1933 into a strict family (many books erroneously give the year 1935). She was the youngest of three children born to Guillermo Berganza, a leftist atheist accountant who loved music and played the trumpet and piano, and his royalist Catholic wife Ascension (née Vargas). “We were neither rich nor poor,” Berganza said. “But we never lacked for anything, because for my parents, our upbringing was based on two values: love and humility.”

She learned piano from her father, who gave her singing lessons from Lola Rodriguez Aragon. At her first session, she was told to go home, lie on the floor with a stack of books on her chest, and take a deep breath. “Since my father was very educated, we had a whole collection of encyclopedias,” she said. “I remember my mom rolling her eyes and saying, ‘My daughter is going to go crazy.'”

As a teenager, she spent several months in a convent contemplating a life of prayer, although many years later she described identifying more with the liberated Carmen. “Of course I could never be a Carmen because of my strict upbringing,” she added. “I don’t think I could ever share her character, but I certainly have something of her.”

In July 1957 she made her operatic debut at the Aix-en-Provence Festival as Dorabella in Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte with Teresa Stich-Randall as her sister Fiordiligi. “Berganza’s singing was one of the great moments of the evening,” Opera magazine observed.

The following year she met two more divas in Maria Callas and Jon Vickers when they were cast together by the Dallas Opera in Cherubini’s Medea.

After making her British debut at Glyndebourne’s Marriage of Figaro In 1958, Berganza was scheduled to return to the role the following year, but was expecting a baby and had to retire. At the beginning of the season she sang Rossinis La Cenerentolawho looks a little out of place as a pregnant Cinderella.

At the Royal Opera House she was Rosina in Rossini’s opera in 1960 The Barber of Seville, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. The critics were impressed.

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Berganza’s star continued to rise. She recorded Handel Alcina with Joan Sutherland in 1960 and made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1967 as Cherubino carmen heralded a series of appearances in this role: Hamburg 1980; San Francisco in 1981; and Covent Garden in 1984.

She appeared in several films, including a televised one carmen 1980 with Placido Domingo and was involved in the opening ceremonies of Expo ’92 in Seville and the Olympic Games in Barcelona.

Two years later she became the first woman to be elected to the Spanish Royal Academy of Arts. One of her last concerts took place in 2002 with her daughter, the soprano Cecilia Lavilla, at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

In 1957 Berganza married Felix Lavilla, a Spanish pianist and composer. The marriage was dissolved in 1977, a breakup she says was inspired by the role of liberated Carmen.

In 1986 she married Jose Rifa, a priest whom she had consulted about their separation. He later returned to the church. She had a son and two daughters from her first marriage. Obituary: Teresa Berganza, spirited mezzo-soprano revered for her portrayal of Carmen

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