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Christiane Eda-Pierre, leading French soprano, dies at 88

French soprano Christiane Eda-Pierre (right), in the role of Hero, performed in Hector Berlioz's opera "Beatrice et Benedict" in 1981.
French soprano Christiane Eda-Pierre (right), in the role of Hero, performed in Hector Berlioz's opera "Beatrice et Benedict" in 1981.LUC NOVOVITCH/AFP via Getty Images

Christiane Eda-Pierre, a coloratura soprano who was among France’s first Black opera stars, and whose New York résumé included a performance seen by some 150,000 people in 1980, died on Sept. 6 at her home in Deux-Sèvres, in western France. She was 88.

Her biographer, Catherine Marceline, posted news of her death on Facebook.

Ms. Eda-Pierre, who was born on the Caribbean island Martinique, made her debut in 1958 in Nice and was soon a regular on French opera and recital stages as well as on radio. She was known for, as one critic put it, “a clear voice backed by good coloratura equipment and a very strong top,” which she employed to fine effect in the operas of Mozart, Bizet and the French Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, as well as in contemporary works.

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In 1966 she made her American debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as Leïla in Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers,” and by the mid-1970s she was turning up on New York stages.

She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in April 1980 as Konstanze in Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” a role that includes a notoriously difficult aria, “Martern aller Arten.”

“Any soprano who can sing Konstanze’s ‘Martern aller Arten’ decently is a better-than-average singer, and Miss Eda-Pierre’s accomplishments with this fiendish aria were far better than decent,” Allen Hughes wrote in his review of the performance in The New York Times. “The aria might be called a vocal obstacle course, so athletic and arbitrary are its demands, and Miss Eda-Pierre negotiated the course adroitly.”

Hughes, though, went on to fault another aspect of her performance, a not uncommon complaint of critics over the years.

“It might seem churlish to expect her to act, too,” he wrote, “but it would have been nice if she had made more of an effort along that line. She is an attractive woman and could conceivably be a compelling stage figure if she tried. But her way in this performance was to take a position, stand there and sing. Period.”

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Two months later Ms. Eda-Pierre was part of a memorable event in Central Park when she sang Gilda, a role she had first performed in France at the start of her career, in the Met’s free production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” The performance was widely anticipated because of the presence in the cast of Luciano Pavarotti, then perhaps opera’s biggest star, making his first appearance in a Met Central Park opera, according to news accounts at the time.

The performances were usually staged in the Sheep Meadow, but it was being resodded at the time, so the event was moved to the larger Great Lawn. The extra space was needed: An estimated 150,000 people turned out.

Ms. Eda-Pierre was born on March 24, 1932, in Ford-de-France, Martinique (which at the time was a French colony and has since become a French territory). Her father, William, was a journalist, and her mother, Alice, was a music teacher who taught her piano.

At 18 she moved to Paris to further her education, and in 1954 she enrolled at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse, graduating in 1957. Shortly after her debut in Nice, she appeared with the Opéra Comique in the title role of Léo Delibes’ “Lakmé,” a role she performed 12 years later at Wexford Festival Opera in Ireland to great acclaim.

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The New York Times noted, “She breathed such life into the faded orientalism of ‘Lakmé’ that London’s leading music critic, Andrew Porter of The Financial Times, wrote after a detailed rave, ‘We must hear more of this remarkable singer!’ ”

In 1974 she brought her Leïla to Carnegie Hall, where the Opera Orchestra of New York performed “The Pearl Fishers.” Two years later she was in the cast as the Countess when the Paris Opera brought its version of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” to the Met and then to the Kennedy Center in Washington.

After her debut with the Met in 1980, Ms. Eda-Pierre performed only for two years with the company. Before her retirement from the opera stage in the mid-1980s, she had another career highlight in 1983 when she originated the role of the angel in Olivier Messiaen’s opera, “St. Francis of Assisi,” which was given its premiere in France by the Paris Opera.

Information on her survivors was not immediately available.

Both before and after her retirement from the stage, Ms. Eda-Pierre taught at the Paris Conservatoire, which operated out of somewhat dilapidated facilities until a move to new quarters in 1990. In a 1984 interview with The Guardian, Ms. Eda-Pierre lamented the flimsiness of the walls and other problems that made it hard to teach voice students.

“Can you hear the saxophone upstairs and the piano next door?” she said. “And that’s after the hole in the ceiling was filled in.”

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