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Regine Crespin, French Opera Diva Dies at 80

Soprano Regine Crespin's voice has been called "an acquired taste that becomes addictive."
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Soprano Regine Crespin's voice has been called "an acquired taste that becomes addictive."

Regine Crespin, one of France's greatest opera singers died Wednesday in Paris. She was 80 years old.

Crespin was born in Marseilles and came to singing late, at age 16, a result of not passing the entrance exams for college. She made her opera debut in 1948 in Reims in the role of Charlotte in Massenet's Werther, and began to make a name for herself singing in other regional opera houses in France.

Crespin's breakthrough came in Bayreuth, the German town which hosts the annual Wagner festival in the opera house built by the composer. When she sang for Wagner's grandson Wieland, who ran the festival, she had to perform Wagner's music in French as she had not learned the original German. She was hired, quickly got a German vocal coach, and made her Bayreuth debut in 1958 in the pivotal role of Kundry in Wagner's Parsifal.

As her international career expanded Crespin began to make records. Critic John Steane has written eloquently about Crespin, calling her "one of the great singers on record." But, he points out, not everyone will be immediately drawn to her voice.

"Her singing is an acquired taste that becomes addictive," he writes. "The voice itself (strong as it is, and beautiful at a pianissimo) is unlikely to register as particularly rich or pure or even as original."

Among the records regarded as her best is the 1963 recording of the song cycle Les Nuits D'ete by Hector Berlioz. Steane focuses on the song "L'Absence," particularly the opening word "Reviens." Steane appreciates the care Crespin takes with that single repeated word, like a call out to a lover.

"We feel the voice going out into the distance," he writes. "The first 'reviens' is shaded down to make the echo; the last syllable grows as a call sent out into a valley."

Crespin had many triumphs in her career, including singing the role of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier both on record--with conductor George Solti--and on stage. She also won rave reviews for her collaborations with soprano Birgit Nilsson, especially her portrayal of Sieglinde to Nilsson's Brunhilde in Wagner's Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In her later years Crespin was an effective voice teacher, giving master classes at Mannes College of Music, in New York.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.