July 27, 2004 by

Yoko Watanabe


Categories: Musicians

Yoko Watanabe, a Japanese opera singer who starred at several of the world’s top opera houses, died on July 15 after a four-year battle with cancer. She was 51.
Watanabe originally planned to become a dancer. She began studying Japanese dance at three, and ballet when she was six. But her hopes for a professional dancing career were dashed by instructors who told her she was too tall and broad-shouldered. At 16, she attended a performance of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” that changed her life.
An accomplished singer and pianist, Watanabe graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1976. She studied opera in Italy for two years before making her European debut at the age of 25. For the next two decades, the graceful soprano played leading roles in operas by Bizet, Mozart and Verdi.
In the 1980s, Watanabe tackled the part of Cio-Cio-San, the geisha who is wooed then abandoned by an American naval officer, in “Madama Butterfly.” It became her signature role, one she would perform with the Fujiwara Opera in Japan, and in her debuts with the Royal Opera in London, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Watanabe is survived by her husband, Italian tenor Renato Grimaldi.

22 Responses to Yoko Watanabe

  1. Samantha Spiegel

    I would like to pay a tribute to Yoko because I played her son, Trouble, in Madame Butterfly. I am sad to hear that she died, which I found out recently, because Yoko was such a great person with an astonishing voice.

  2. Emma Bryn-Jones

    I remember Yoko and Renato when she was singing Butterfly to dad’s Sharpless for the Royal Opera House in Manchester – must have been about 20 years ago. I was only 18 and they were both lovely to me. I send prayers to Renato for his loss of a beautiful woman with a huge heart and voice to match 🙂 xx

  3. Father Gregory Schweers

    I recall so well when Miss Watanabe came to Dallas and did a brilliant set of Cio-Cio-San’s for BUTTERFLY. What made it all the more special was her willingness to be interviewed by our high school newspaper, THE INFORMER, [I served as Italian/English translator.] about her life as an opera diva: the sacrifices, the difficulties, the triumphs, the art! She was as gracious and beautiful as the role she sang. As an Asian ‘Butterfly’ she gave all of us in the West a new insight into Puccini’s work, an insight that the master himself probably did not know. May the good Lord bless her soul and forgive her sins; may angels greet her own angelic voice as it ascends into the Heavens; may ALL OF US one day here again that divine voice in a far, far better place than the one we now live in. R.I.P.!

  4. Nitto Marquez

    It is with great shock that I learned of Ms. Watanabe’s passing while reading the current season catalogue of the Canadian Opera Company. A photo of Ms. Watanabe as Mimi was accompanied by a caption acknowledging her passing.
    Ms. Watanabe was the first Butterfly I saw live in an opera house, and I consider it a priveledge to see and hear an “authentic” Butterfly. She sang magnificently, and was a beautiful Cio-cio San to the dashing Pinkerton of Marcello Giordani. That performance was subsequently broadcast over Canada by CBC radio, and it is with regret that I now realize I should have recorded that broadcast as a souvenir of Ms. Watanabe’s artistry. My sincere condolences to her husband and family; I am grateful to have seen some of her performances here in Toronto and will certainly remember and miss her.

  5. Ross Clark

    I heard her sing Butterfly in Adelaide. I thought she was absolutely wonderful. In fact, I cannot remember ever hearing a better (I am very old). I am devastated to hear that she is dead. Thank you, for some very wonderful moments in my life!

  6. thierry pillon

    I am very sad hearing that one of the greatest cio-cio-san I have ever seen id dead… I have a great great memory of this beautiful artist and nice person. I was very closed friend with the tenor who sang pinkerton with her in Angers (France), I was young and never forgot this artist. I am sad!… I remember that I recorded the performance for my friend (John Sandor)… If someone is interested to have a copy… let me know…

  7. Leodigario del Rosario

    I am so sad and shocked at the same time of hearing her death.She was the greatest Cio-cio San I’ve ever heard when we did the production in the Philippines although I am not her Pinkerton I admired the passion and fire in both her voice and her acting.She will be missed by her fans and colleagues of whom she worked with.

  8. Albert Brancato

    I saw Ms. Watanabe at the Cologne opera in 1985 and, if my memory serves me well, also in Bonn around that time. She was Cio-cio San. Her convincing acting and graceful movements were the perfect complements to her wonderful voice. I will never forget her timbre and the combination of unaffected simplicity and mature suffering she brought to the role. At the intermission the physician on duty at the opera was called back stage because Ms. Watanabe was worried she didn’t have the strength needed for the second act. When the curtain rose, there she was, and she surpassed any Cio-cio San I have ever seen. After the performance she autographed a portrait card for me, “con tanta simpatia.” She will remain unforgotten, one of operas greats.

  9. Eduard Millan

    I was utterly surprised to find out about the death of Yoko Watanabe. I saw her beautiful Butterfly with the San Diego Opera in 1998 which I also recorded from a broadcast. I remember how moved I was by her portrayl and to this day I can still see vividly in my mind the heartbreaking final tableau: Butterfly is dying and Pinkerton rushehs to her followed by their child. I recall how Ms. Watanabe/Butterfly looked up at Pinkerton and her child and caressed their faces tenderly and then collapsed. Brava!

  10. Renato Grimaldi

    Hello everybody, I am Renato Grimaldi, Yoko Watanabe’ husband. I want to tank all the people who so kindly remembers my Yoko and me also. She was also a great wife and woman, very active and entusiastic. She did in fifty years what normal people like me can’t do even in hundred years. This helps me to survive, I miss her greatly. Thany thanks again. Ciao! Renato

  11. Irma Grimaldi

    Dear Yoko, dear Renato,
    I’m Irma Grimaldi and I want remember a very special woman who was able to do beautiful things in her life, so many things that normal people can hardly do in a lifetime, as my aunt Renato says. I’ll always remember you, our beloved angel. My only regret is not having been nearest to you like that younger sister you didn’t have. But who knows… may be one day… Good bye for now…Irma. Ciao, Renato, abbi cura di te

  12. Minoru Yasuda

    We attended the same collage in Tokyo; Yoko
    majored vocal music and I did architecture. Both courses have been formed a special relationship in the collage and we enjoyed our friendship.
    I just learned of Yoko’s rest from Yoko’s yearned boyfriend in our collage time about three weeks ago when I visited Japan. He said Yoko had appeared in his dream on the day Yoko died.
    Yoko, we are so sorry. We did not know you had been battling with cancer. We wanted to see you
    agin. we now only pray that you are singing and delighting god in the heaven.
    Mr.Grimaldi,please accept our heartfelt wishes of sympathy.

  13. Jeana

    My son Justin Stevens played the role of “Trouble” in 1998 at the Sand Diego Opera. What a beautiful experience Yoko made it to be for my then 4 yr old son. She will be deeply missed.

  14. william Farlow

    I had the pleasure of directing Yoko in FAUST in her first performances as Marguerite. This was with the Pittsburgh Opera in 1986. She was a lovely colleague.
    William Farlow

  15. patricia panton

    What a terrible shock to hear of Yoko’s death. She was so young and full of life! We did several Butterflys together…and as a stage director I have never been able to vary from “HER” Butterfly.
    Other sopranos who have done Butterfly under my direction have always been a photocopy of Yoko (in my eyes) I always saw Yoko in every CioCio San I was working with..perhaps it wasn’t very fair to the other sopranos..but for me She was Butterfly! Our last meeting was in my home. An interview with the Japanese Television…How I would like to have some photos of that occasion! My husband, Armando Salducci was also present at the interview and photo shots.. sadly he too left us in Nov. 2003. Sayonara carissima Yoko!

  16. Brian French

    I took two guests from France to see her as Cio Cio San in Toronto – I think in 92 or 03.
    Tonite Butterfly was on PBS from Lincoln Center, and I thought, what a pedestrian performance compared to Ms Watanabe’s.
    I googled and here I am, and saddened.
    She was brilliant; the role was made for her, and she for it.

  17. Giandomenico Bisi

    Caro Renato solo oggi ho appreso della scomparsa di Yoko . Non puoi immaginare la sorpresa ed il dolore. Mi farebbe particolarmente piacere risentirti dopo tanto tempo. Se vuoi puoi contattarmi all’indirizzo gianbisi@tin.it. Un caro abbraccio. Giandomenico

  18. Martin Walker

    I am very sad to have learned of Ms. Watanabe’s death. I never appreciated this opera until I saw it with her in Frankfurt in 1984, and none of the singers I have heard in it since have even begun to approach her perfect performance in vocal beauty and dramatic presentation.

  19. Dennis O'Neill

    I would like to add my sympathy to those who have already contributed. Ironically, I have only today received a recording of Mefistofole recorded in Zurich in 1988 when I sang Faust at the Opera HOuse opposite this wonderful lady. She was a great colleague and wonderful artist. A great sadness for the world of Opera. Every best wish to her family.
    Dennis O’Neill

  20. Terrill Carder

    I am searching everywhere for a recording of this voice which is described so beautifully…I would very much appreciate if someone would post such a recording on youtube…

  21. aya

    I’m terribly shocked and sad to know that Yoko had passed away. I played a role at Royal Opera House 17 years ago for Madama Butterfly. I remember she was such a talented singer and also amazing person. The memory of Yoko will live in my heart forever.

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