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Teresa Berganza, celebrated Spanish opera star, dies at 89

Teresa Berganza, a Spanish mezzo-soprano admired for her lithe, radiant, immaculately crafted performances in the operas of Mozart and Rossini, died May 13 at her home in the ancient city of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, now part of greater Madrid. She was 89.

The cultural ministry of Spain announced the death but did not provide further details. Her daughter Cecilia Lavilla Berganza, a soprano, wrote in a Facebook post that her mother requested as little fuss as possible. "I came into the world and no one found out," she quoted her mother saying, "so I wish the same when I leave."

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Ms. Berganza was best known in the United States through her many recordings, including more than 20 solo albums as well as a dozen complete operas. She appeared in several films, the most famous of which was the director Joseph Losey’s adaptation of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” a surprise box-office hit in 1979, in which she sang the role of Zerlina.

Her personal appearances in America were few, beginning at the Dallas Opera in 1958, continuing in Chicago, San Francisco, and eventually a single season at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967-1968.

Nobody has ever explained the brevity of Ms. Berganza’s career at the Met. But her voice was never a large one, and it is possible that the 3,700-seat house was simply too gigantic for her. She was also already very busy in Britain, where she was revered, and throughout Europe. Whenever she came back to the United States thereafter, it was almost always as a recitalist — and a very fine one, at that.

Of a performance at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1982, Donal Henahan, then the chief music critic of the New York Times, wrote that "this was by no means a mere recital of notes and words, but a recital in the best musical sense."

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"It was impossible at any time to separate the singer's voice from the sense of the text, even if that had been desirable," Henahan continued. "Now and then, the listener became dimly aware of articulation, accentuation, stress or color shadings, but these nuances were so inextricably tied up with the words that such distinctions could not make themselves felt."

Ms. Berganza was always an individualist and spoke her mind. She refused to sing any opera in translation (“it seems like an absolute betrayal of the composer,” she told Chicago radio host Bruce Duffie in 1984), and she developed a reputation for canceling performances at the last minute.

“I will never permit myself to sing under bad conditions when my voice is not ready to sing,” she said, adding she was proud to be part of a “trio” that included conductor Carlos Kleiber and pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli — about both of whom the same complaint had been made.

“We all cancel when we feel we are not ready to give our best, 100 percent,” Ms. Berganza said. “I don’t really cancel very often, but when I do, that is why. I must always have respect for myself and for my public who is coming not to hear what is left of me, but to hear Teresa Berganza. It is my life.”

Teresa Berganza was born in Madrid on March 16, 1933. Her father, an accountant who played piano and trumpet, arranged for her early music lessons. She aspired in childhood to become a nun, and she entered the Madrid Conservatory with the goal of learning piano and organ for her religious vocation.

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Her ambitions changed thanks to a teacher who marveled at her singing talent, which earned her first place in a contest sponsored by the conservatory. She also married Felix Lavilla, a piano student who became her accompanist.

She made her operatic debut in 1957 at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France as Dorabella in “Così Fan Tutte.” Soon she was singing at Milan’s La Scala and at the Vienna State Opera. She had a huge success in England as Cherubino in a 1958 Glyndebourne opera house performance of “Le Nozze di Figaro” that made her famous and launched her recording career.

Her concert repertory was extensive, including Catalan folk melodies as well as song cycles by Schubert, Schumann, Mussorgsky, and Mahler. She said that she had mostly abandoned operatic performances because the preparation time was almost invariably insufficient.

After her retirement she remained active as a teacher in Spain and presented master classes around the world.

She had three children with Lavilla, whom she divorced in 1977 after playing the liberated proto-feminist Carmen at the Edinburgh Festival and in Paris around that time. In 1986, she married José Rifá, a priest she had conferred with about her separation. He left the church to wed Ms. Berganza, but they later divorced. In addition to Lavilla Berganza, she leaves two children, Teresa and Javier.

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In her vast repertoire, she said, Mozart and Rossini meant the most to her.

“With Rossini, I discovered technique and perfection, with Mozart, purity and spirit,” she told the French publication L’Express in 2005. “My teacher once said to me, ‘Teresa, when you’ve learned how to sing the duo with Figaro from “The Barber of Seville,” that will be the day when you have nothing more to fear.’”

“Imagine walking on the edge of a precipice — that’s what it’s like to sing the Barber duo,” she added. “It makes you dizzy. The notes rush forward and then suddenly stop. The vocal line is stately one moment, dancing on pointe the next. The dynamics change from forte to pianissimo in seconds, the phrasing from legato to staccato. Even now, to keep my breath and muscular control in shape, I sing Rossini every day.”

“As for Mozart,” she continued, “his music needs above all purity and absolute self-control. There’s a great deal of passion in Mozart’s recitatives and the arias, just as there are in Rossini, but it is a passion that’s more ethereal, intangible — and, yes, pure.”