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Regine Crespin, 80; French soprano with international renown

July 06, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

French soprano Regine Crespin, who was remarkable for forging an international reputation largely in German operas, has died. She was 80.

Crespin died Thursday at a Paris hospital, according to her longtime record label, EMI. No cause of death was given.

The possessor of a dark-toned, opulent voice that she used tastefully and intelligently, Crespin initially learned all her roles in French. But once it became clear that she had the vocal resources for a global career, she relearned them as appropriate in German or Italian and went on to sing German in Vienna and in the theater built for Richard Wagner's operas in Bayreuth, Germany, and Italian at La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy.

Then, after a series of medical and personal problems almost ended her career in the early 1970s, she rebuilt her voice from scratch, learning new repertory as a mezzo-soprano.

In her candid autobiography, "On Stage, Off Stage: A Memoir," Crespin related how she had had a difficult childhood with an alcoholic mother and a perfectionist father. She said her maternal grandmother, to whom she dedicated the book, was her greatest influence.

She married writer Lou Bruder in 1962. She revealed in the book that she had terminated a pregnancy because of the demands of her career. She also underwent two long struggles with cancer, surviving surgery and chemotherapy.

Crespin was born Feb. 23, 1927, in Marseille and grew up in Nimes. She planned to become a pharmacist but after winning a vocal contest in her mid-teens, went on to study at the Paris Conservatory, where she took three prizes.

She made her professional debut in 1948 as Charlotte in Jules Massenet's "Werther" in the Champagne town of Reims. She sang Elsa in Wagner's "Lohengrin" in 1950 in the Alsatian city of Mulhouse and Kundry in Wagner's "Parsifal" from 1958 to 1960 in Bayreuth.

In 1962, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" and remained with the company until her farewell appearance in Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" in 1987.

She appeared at the San Francisco Opera in 1966 singing the dual roles of Dido and Cassandra in Hector Berlioz's "Les Troyens" and the part of Elisabeth in Wagner's "Tannhauser."

During that run, she also performed a recital at the Beverly Hills High School auditorium under the sponsorship of the Beverly Hills Music Assn.

"She found awaiting her neither the kind of hall nor the kind of audience she deserves," former Times music critic Martin Bernheimer commented at the time. The hall, he wrote, was "hardly festive in atmosphere or beneficial in its acoustical properties. The audience, though appreciative and -- when it came time for aria encores -- wildly enthusiastic, did not even approach capacity proportions.

"Still, it did not matter much. Crespin's artistry is strong enough to surmount far greater obstacles."

Crespin gave her San Francisco Opera farewell performance in 1987 as the Countess in Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades." She had begun teaching at the Paris Conservatory in 1976 and after retiring from singing in 1989 remained active as a teacher, giving master classes in the United States and participating in the San Francisco Opera's Merola training program for 15 years.

"I thought my voice was not so flexible, that it was the beginning of going down, and I didn't want to do that," she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1997. "So I stopped. Once the decision was made, it was easy. Now I am free to do whatever I want; I can have a cigarette, I can have a drink. There's no voice in the back saying, 'Be careful, you have to sing next week.' "

In her autobiography, originally published in French in 1982 as "La Vie et l'Amour d'une Femme" (The Life and Love of a Woman) and later expanded and revised for an English version published in 1997, Crespin wrote: "It was a big fight between Regine and Crespin, the diva.

"Regine was always under the table, saying, 'Hey, I would like to live, too.' But Crespin would say, 'Shut up, you have to appear here and there.' In the end, they both won. We reached a gentleman's agreement.

"People think we are prima donnas," she added, "that we are taken out of a box to go on stage, that it's all limousines and flowers and champagne. I wanted to say we are like other human beings -- we suffer, we love, we are angry, we have cancer, we lose a friend, a child."

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