Soprano Leyla Gencer was born in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1928. Her father belonged to one of the most ancient families of Anatolia and her mother, a Catholic Pole, was descended from a Lithuanian noble family. She lived in a palace on the Bosphorus before leaving to study at the Istanbul Conservatoire (while studying yoga respiration). She later left the Conservatoire to study with the renowned Italian soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, and later with Apollo Granforte.
Gencer sang in the chorus of the Turkish State Theater until she made her operatic debut in Ankara in 1950 as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. During the next few years, she became well-known in Turkey and sang frequently at functions for the Turkish government.
Leyla Gencer made her Italian debut at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples in 1953 as Santuzza. She returned to Naples the following year for performances of Madama Butterfly and Eugene Onegin. On January 26, 1957, she made her debut at La Scala in Milan as Mme. Lidoine in the world premiere of Poulenc's Les Dialogues des Carmelites. She became a favorite at La Scala, and appeared there for 15 seasons between 1957 and 1983. She sang 19 different roles at La Scala, including Leonora in La Forza del Destino (1957, 1961, 1965), Elisabetta di Valois in Don Carlos (1961, 1963-64, 1970), Aïda (1963 & 1966), Lady Macbeth in Macbeth (1964), Norma (1965), Ottavia in L'incoronazione di Poppea (1967), and Alceste (1972). At La Scala, she also appeared as the First Woman of Canterbury in the world premiere of Pizzetti's L'assassinio nella cattedrale in 1958.
Gencer also enjoyed a successful international career, appearing in her debut season at Covent Garden in 1962 as Elisabetta di Valois and as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. She made her American debut in San Francisco in 1956 as Francesca in Francesca da Rimini. She appeared in cities across the US, but never sang at the Metropolitan Opera, though there had been discussions for her to sing Tosca there in 1956.
Throughout her career, Gencer was known primarily as a Donizetti interpreter. Among her best-known Donizetti performances are Belisario (1969 & 1970), Poliuto, Anna Bolena (1958), Lucrezia Borgia (1966 & 1970), Maria Stuarda (1967), and Caterina Cornaro (1972). Her most acclaimed and best-known performance, though, was Roberto Devereux in Naples in 1964. Apart from the bel canto roles, Gencer's 72-role repertory included works by such composers as Prokofiev, Mozart, and Puccini. She also appeared in many rarely performed operas, including Smareglia's La Falena, Rossini's Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, Spontini's Agnese di Hohenstaufen, Pacini's Saffo, and Gluck's Alceste.
Leyla Gencer retired from opera in 1985 with a performance of Francesco Gnecco's La Prova di un'opera seria at La Fenice, though she continued to appear in concerts until 1992. She is still active at La Scala, and was recently appointed by Maestro Riccardo Muti to run La Scala's school for young artists. In 1996, the first ever Yapý Kredi International Leyla Gencer Voice Competition took place in Istanbul. The winner of that first competition was the Albanian mezzo Enkelejda Shkosa, who has gone on to have a very successful career in Europe.