Leyla Gencer was asked only twice to record for major recording companies. Both offers came directly from the famous conductor Tullio Serafin. He was planning to make two opera recordings (La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra) for two major recording companies. At first Serafin was planning to work with Maria Callas in La Traviata but since she had recorded the same opera in 1953 for Cetra label, according to her contract she didn’t have the right to record it for another label. Knowing Gencer’s success as Violetta, Serafin wanted to collaborate with Gencer but according to her, both offers were prevented by Callas. In the end Serafin recorded La Traviata with Anonietta Stella for the label Emi in 1959.
Gencer may not be considered one of the recording artists but today her numerous (over 150) opera, concert and recital recordings are available in the music markets on LPs, CDs and DVDs. Such high number of recordings gave her the title of “Queen of Pirates”. Here’s a list of her recordings: Macbeth (12 recordings), Lucrezia Borgia (10 recordings), Norma (8 recordings), La Gioconda, Aida, La Forzadel destino (6 recordings), Anna Bolena, Belisario, Simon Boccanegra (5 recordings), Maria Stuarda, Le Martyrs, Alceste, Don Carlo, Don Giovanni, La Battaglia di Legnano, Ernani (4 recordings), Un ballo in maschera, Rigoletto, Gerusalemme, Il trovatore, I vespri Siciliani, Agnese di Hohenstaufen, Elizabetta Regina d’Inghilterra, Medea in Corinto, Caterina Cornaro, Medea, I Puritani (3 recordings), I due Foscari, Attila, Tosca, Les dialogue des Carmelites, Idomeneo, L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Werther, Cavalleria Rusticana, La prova di un’Opera seria, Roberto Devereux, Lucia di Lammermoor, Francesca da Rimini, La Vestal (2 recordings) and single recordings of La Traviata, Pikovaya Dama, Yevgeny Onyegin, La Falena, Guillaume Tell, Monte Ivnor, Turandot, Suor Angelica, madama Butterfly, Il Tabarro, L’ange de feu, Lo Straniero, Lassasinio nella Catedrale, Saffo, Adriana Lecouvreur, Albert Herring, Beatrice di Tenda.
Gencer’s recordings of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, Rossini’s Stabat Mater and Donizetti’s Requiem per Bellini and the recordings of her recitals and concerts, famous for their highly distinguished programs; (1956, 1974 and 1976 in Torino, in 1975 and 1979-Venice, 1975-Spoleto, 1976- Trieste, 1958 and 1978-Milan, 1979-Treviso, 1980, 1981 and 1985-Paris, 1981-Palermo and 1984-Naples) are available on CDs. Her Masterclass Scuola della Regine about Donizetti Queens (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda ve Roberto Devereux) which she gave for Rai television in 1982 is also available on DVD.
Only a very few of these recordings were made at studios. The majority of them so called “pirate recordings” were made under bad circumstances at opera houses where the artists didn’t receive any copyright fees. Rumour has it that, there are many recordings of Gencer such as Manon (1958 San Francisco), Rigoletto (1958 San Francisco/Los Angeles), Lucia di Lammermoor (1957 San Francisco/Los Angeles), Aida (1963, 1966 La Scala Milan), Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1957 Palermo), Mefistofele (1958 La Scala Milan), Tosca (1961 Vienna), La Traviata (1957 Vienna/San Francisco/Los Angeles/San Diego/Sacramento, 1958 Philadelphia), Francesca da Rimini (1956 San Francisco/Los Angeles), Otello (1962 Genova) and La Sonnambula (1959 Naples) which are still hidden in archives. The role of Elsa in Tannhauser is also in Gencer’s repertoire but due to a strike at the opera house, the performances were postponed to further dates on which Gencer had other opera engagements. Consequently she couldn’t sing the role. BBC Television also broadcast her Glyndebourne Figaro on 29 August 1963.
Depite her decleration of “British and American ciritics never liked me”, England’s biggest opera festival Glyndebourne released the recording of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro of 1963 through its own record label. Gencer’s brilliant Contessa performance is worth listening. Again through its own recording label, Covent Garden Opera of London released the recording of the mythical Don Giovanni production conducted by Georg Solti and directed by Franco Zeffirelli in which Gencer sang Donna Anna. Speaking of Mozart, one must mention Idomeneo premiered at La Scala in 1968. Gencer’s performance under the baton of Wolfgang Sawallisch was undoubtedly one of Gencer’s most powerful Mozart interpretations. Gencer’s interpretation of the role Elettra in the Italian style received the best reviews from Italian opera critics. This performance can be found in La Scala’s 1968 recording.
Among Gencer’s recordings there are also DVDs in black and white. Verdi’s Il Trovatore in which she sang with legendary tenor Mario del Monaco is a masterpiece. And two DVDs of Verdi’s Aida recorded in 1963 and 1966 at Arena di Verona are some of Gencer’s best performances. Her interpretation of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni DVD which was recorded for Rai TV in 1960 is absolutely remarkable. Despite her great success as Charlotte, Werther was unfortunately performed in Italian as it was very common at that time, but this recording didn’t become popular because of today’s opera standarts.