Leyna Gabriele, a lyric coloratura soprano who became a fan-club idol for playing the title role in the first production of the tragic rags-to-riches-to-rags opera “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” died on Oct. 14 in Tarrytown, N.Y. She was 95.
Her death was confirmed by her niece Michelene Hallie, one of several nieces and nephews who survive her.
Miss Gabriele (pronounced gab-ree-EL-ee) was believed to be the first singer to whom Douglas Moore gave the “Baby Doe” lyrics to audition as he was composing it at Columbia University. It was his signature opera.
Dolores Wilson played the title role in the work’s world premiere, in Central City, Colo., in 1956. Miss Gabriele starred as Baby Doe on the second night and in many subsequent performances that season.
“The Ballad of Baby Doe” not only became an American repertory standard (the role was performed by, among others, the soprano Beverly Sills). It also inspired an organization of groupies, who call themselves DoeHeads, and who created a more-than-you-wanted-to-know website, including a recording of Miss Gabriele singing “Gold Is a Fine Thing.”
Among the other popular arias from the opera are “Letter Aria,” “Willow Song,” “I Knew it Was Wrong” and “Always Through the Changing.”
The opera’s libretto, by John Latouche, was based on the storied real-life romance between the silver magnate Horace Tabor and Elizabeth McCourt, known as Baby Doe, the estranged wife of a failed miner. Tabor lost his fortune and died in 1899; Baby Doe became a penniless recluse whose frozen body was found in 1935 near Tabor’s once-booming Matchless Mine.
Miss Gabriele was also well known in New York as the co-owner, with her husband, Vito Pisa, of Chez Vito, a Manhattan supper club where roaming Hungarian violinists and singers, the proprietress included, serenaded diners seated on plush red velvet banquettes at candlelit tables. Patrons included Roy Cohn, Wernher von Braun, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Lene Madelyn Gabriele was born on March 25, 1924, in Fairmont, W.Va., a coal-mining city near Morgantown, to Costanzo Gabriele, a shoemaker from Italy, and Michelena (Potesta) Gabriele, a homemaker.
Singing was her passion, a pursuit encouraged by her parents and her teachers. After graduating from Fairmont State College (now University) with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1944, she studied voice, first in New York City and later in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship.
When she returned to New York in the early 1950s, she changed the spelling of her first name to Leyna, to make it clearer that it was pronounced LAY-nuh, with an Italian inflection.
In 1952 she was working as an office temp and living with a girlfriend from West Virginia who was dating a Hungarian violinist who played at Chez Vito. He told Miss Gabriele that the supper club was looking to hire a singer.
She auditioned by singing “La Vie en Rose” and was hired at $40 a week. She took Mr. Pisa’s advice and learned “Core ’ngrato” (“Ungrateful Heart”), his favorite song, which became her signature. They married in 1954. (She sometimes went by the name Mrs. Pisa.) He died in 1966.
The cafe, which was originally on West 58th Street and then moved to East 60th Street, was frequented by Metropolitan Opera stars and other celebrities from the theater world, politics and other fields whose idle gossip or whispered negotiations might suddenly be curtailed by restaurant troubadours.
After Miss Gabriele closed the cafe in 1973, she taught opera workshops at Princeton University and, with the actor and director Walt Witcover, at the Masterworks Laboratory Theater at the State University of New York at Purchase.
Even while she was hosting and performing at the cafe, she continued to sing onstage. She appeared in the premieres of Jack Beeson’s opera “Hello, Out There” at Columbia University in 1954 and of Sergius Kagen’s “Hamlet” in Baltimore in 1963.
Reviewing her New York professional debut at Town Hall in 1958 for The New York Times, Eric Salzman praised her “musical sensitivity” and her “knack of sending forth beautifully controlled soft tones.”
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