Christiane Eda-Pierre obituary

An obituary by Barry Millington for London’s Guardian.

Soprano whose flair for Mozart and French composers helped her to blaze a trail for other black opera singers

The soprano Christiane Eda-Pierre, who has died aged 88, was one of the first black opera singers to achieve an international reputation. A native of the French eastern Caribbean island of Martinique, she had a voice type best described as “lyric coloratura”: it enabled her to excel in taxing arias exploiting the upper register, but her warm, textured tone was also an asset in the repertoire she specialised in: Mozart and French music, especially Bizet and Rameau.

Her father, William, was a journalist, her mother, Alice (nee Nardal), a music teacher who gave her piano lessons from the age of seven. Her grandfather and grandmother, respectively an amateur flautist/singer and an organist, were musical too. Also inspirational was her aunt, Paulette Nardal: the first black woman to study at the Sorbonne, she was a key figure in the development of a black literary consciousness, responsible for introducing French intellectuals to the work of the Harlem Renaissance poets.Advertisement

Christiane followed in her aunt’s footsteps in Paris, but attending the Conservatoire, winning three premiers prix in singing on her graduation in 1957. She made her debut in Nice as Leïla in Bizet’s Pearl Fishers the following year, going on to sing Pamina (Magic Flute) at Aix-en-Provence (1959) and Delibes’ Lakmé at the Opéra-Comique (1961), a part which like that of Leïla was to become a signature role.

Her participation in the first public performance of Rameau’s Les Boréades (La Maison de la Radio, Paris, 1964), as well as appearances as Fatima in Les Indes Galantes (Paris Opéra, 1962) and as Amélite in Zoroastre (Opéra-Comique, 1964), confirmed her credentials in French Baroque repertory, and she played an important part in the revival of Rameau’s music then under way.

Other landmarks in her career included a tour with the Paris Opéra to sing Countess Almaviva at the Metropolitan, New York, in 1976 and her participation as Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail in a Günther Rennert production (Paris, 1976) conducted by Karl Böhm and mounted by Rolf Liebermann largely for her. She went on to record the role under Colin Davis in 1978 and to make her debut with the Met company proper in it (1980).

Christiane Eda-Pierre as Hero with Gabriel Bacquier, left, performs the role of Somarone, in Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict in Lyon, 1981.

Christiane Eda-Pierre as Hero with Gabriel Bacquier, left, performs the role of Somarone, in Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict in Lyon, 1981. 

At a free-admission performance of Rigoletto in Central Park, New York, that year she sang a thrilling Gilda to Pavarotti’s Duke of Mantua in front of an audience variously estimated between 150,000 and 300,000. In one of her last appearances before she retired from the operatic stage in the mid-1980s, she created the role of the Angel in Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise (Paris Opéra at the Palais Garnier, 1983).

Born in the city of Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, an overseas territory of France, Eda-Pierre took her baccalauréat and in 1950 set off for Paris. She went there initially to study the piano, and it was her teacher at the École Normale, Jean Planel, who realised her vocal talent and recommended her to the Swiss baritone and teacher Charles Panzéra.

Shortly after her early successes in the roles of Leïla and Lakmé, her appearance as Amélite in Zoroastre prompted one critic to report that “her angelic musicality, fresh and exquisite timbre and unforced virtuosity won her a great personal triumph”, predicting a stellar career for her. Then three years later she stood in at short notice for Mirella Freni at the Lyric, Chicago, again as Leïla, when in spite of a certain physical gaucheness and understandable timidity, she impressed with her authentic trills and innate musicality.

Further successes followed, at the Wexford festival with Lakmé (1970) and Leïla (1971), and then in 1973 with Imogene in Bellini’s Il Pirata. In this last role it was noted that her voice had grown fuller without any loss of flexibility. Singing in Italian had given her delivery extra intensity and even greater definition in projecting both raw emotion and delicate shades of feeling.

Also commented on was her acting style, notably sparing of gesture, here judged to be deployed, along with her “marvellously expressive face”, to considerable effect. Less sympathetic observers, however, criticised her acting in later years for its excessively minimal, not to say static, quality.

Her performance as Antonia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Paris Opéra, 1974), preserved on YouTube, is notable both for her impassioned, secure delivery and for a glimpse of one of the only two operatic productions undertaken by Patrice Chéreau before his ground-breaking Ring at the Bayreuth Festival (1976). Her ability to shine in all four soprano roles in Offenbach’s opera drew comparisons with Beverley Sills and Joan Sutherland. And justly so, for she was able to invest them with both a real sense of drama and a plenitude of tone that contrasted favourably with the mechanical delivery of decoration and pitchpipe timbre of some notable exponents of the role.

The Queen of the Night (Magic Flute) was unsurprisingly another role in which she excelled, but she was also a fine interpreter of both Anna and Elvira in Don Giovanni, a gleaming Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito and an eloquent Electra in Idomeneo, drawing on silvery and dark tonal coloration alike and a seamless legato.

A flair for precise articulation was also demonstrated in her CD recording of arias by Grétry and Philidor. The Angel in Messiaen’s opera, one of a number of contemporary roles she undertook, exploited her accuracy in the high register with long, sustained notes above the stave, though it was a notably warm-toned, humane angel she presented rather than the conventional ethereal stereotype. She was a professor of singing at the Paris Conservatoire from 1977 to 1996. In 2008 she was made a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, and last year saw a biography by Catherine Marceline, Christiane Eda-Pierre: Une Vie d’Excellence.

• Christiane Eda-Pierre, soprano, born 24 March 1932; died 6 September 2020

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