Yoko Watanabe, the first Japanese opera soprano to have starred at the world's top four opera houses, has died in Italy, a Japan Opera Foundation official said Friday. She was 51.

Yoko Watanabe, the first Japanese opera soprano to have starred at the world's top four opera houses, has died in Italy, a Japan Opera Foundation official said Friday. She was 51.

Watanabe died at her home in Milan, Italy, on July 15, said Teruko Tsubaki, the foundation official.

Tsubaki refused to specify the cause of Watanabe's death. Watanabe was diagnosed with cancer in January 2000, she said.

After graduating from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1976, Watanabe left for Italy to study opera. She spent two years at an institute tied to La Scala, Milan's opera house.

In 1978, the 25-year-old Watanabe made her debut in Europe, but mostly performed in Italy.

She returned to Japan in 1985 for her much-celebrated first performance at home with the Fujiwara Opera troupe, as Butterfly in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." It was to be her signature role.

Although at times critics thought her singing lacked precision, she made up for it with sheer intensity. Over the course of her career, she appeared as Butterfly in hundreds of performances at opera houses around the world.

"She was the first Japanese ever to have performed lead roles in the world's four major opera houses," Tsubaki said, referring to La Scala; Wiener Staatsoper in Vienna, Austria; Metropolitan Opera in New York; and the Royal Opera House in London.

Watanabe also won leading roles in Charles Gounod's "Faust," Bizet's "Carmen," Mozart's "Don Giovanni," and Puccini's "La Boheme" and "Turandot."

"She was better known for being a splendid opera singer abroad than in Japan," Tsubaki said.

In December 1999, Watanabe fell ill during a performance. A month later, doctors said she had cancer, prompting her to retire after a 21-year career and undergo treatment.

Watanabe is survived by her husband, the former Italian tenor Renat Glimard.


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