Ewa Podles, the Polish contralto whose darkly molten, three-octave-plus voice and commanding presence made her a favorite of opera connoisseurs, died on Friday in Warsaw. She was 71.
Her death, in a hospice center, was confirmed by her stepdaughter, Ania Marchwinska, who said the cause was lung cancer.
Aficionados embraced Ms. Podles (whose full name was pronounced AE-vuh PODE-lesh) not just for her exciting performances, but also for how unusual she was: True contraltos — the lowest-lying female voice type, deeper than a mezzo-soprano — are hardly common.
Developing the low chest register as much as the rest of the voice, a contralto is “like an alto in the lower range, like a soprano on top,” Ms. Podles told The New York Times in 1998. And she fit that bill: Though her tone was melancholically hooded and brooding, with a cavernous chest register, she also had the high notes and agility to excel at Handel and Rossini’s most demandingly florid roles.
“It’s a very rare voice,” Ms. Podles said of her instrument.
And she wielded it with utter authority. “Never, for even one moment of one recitative in any opera, was she anything but riveting in her conviction,” the conductor Will Crutchfield, who collaborated with her several times, said in a phone interview. “She had something to say.”
Ewa Maria Podles was born on April 26, 1952, in Warsaw to Walery and Teresa (Sawicka) Podles, a member of the chorus of the Polish National Opera.
“My mother was an extraordinary singer,” Ms. Podles told The Times. “She had a very, very deep voice, like a man. She recorded a bit on the radio, but everyone who heard her asked: ‘Is it really a woman singing?’”
Ms. Podles didn’t have to fight for her low notes, either. “It’s the most natural register in my voice,” she said. “I was born with this chest voice. Some people hate the chest voice, and some people say: ‘Oh, it’s magnificent. I adore you.’”
She studied in Warsaw at the conservatory that is now the Chopin University of Music, and she was a prizewinner at the 1978 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1984, taking over for the great mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, another singer with both earthy power and dazzling coloratura, in the title role of Handel’s “Rinaldo.” (That part, like many of Ms. Podles’s Baroque specialties, was originally written for a male castrato and is typically sung today by a lower-register female singer or a male countertenor.)
While Ms. Podles was hardly unknown in American opera circles, the repertoire in which she specialized wasn’t standard fare at U.S. opera houses, and her only Met appearance after “Rinaldo” was a 2008 run in the small but crucial role of La Cieca in Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda.” Ms. Podles became something of a cult figure, one of the singers that fans make a point of traveling to hear.
And, like many cult artists, she was not to all tastes. Her acting was unabashedly old-fashioned — a sometimes wide-eyed, arms-outstretched embodiment of opera’s stylized, semi-mythic side.
Well-groomed modern singers aim for a smooth, unobtrusive flow between the different parts of their voices; Ms. Podles reveled in the breaks between them. As she told The Times, gutsily relishing the chest register, as she did, is off-putting to some listeners. She said that while the top and bottom extremes of her voice came easily, the rest needed to be diligently built, and her middle register could be a bit breathy.
But for many, she was unforgettable. “The sheer, round, sensuous beauty of her voice was staggering,” the eminent pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who toured and recorded with her, said in an interview. “I don’t want to make comparisons, but when I worked with Jessye Norman” — the American soprano who died in 2019 — “you had the same sense of this huge, engulfing but not piercing sound, a wide sound.”
And when elemental intensity was called for, as in Mussorgsky’s cycle “Songs and Dances of Death,” Ms. Podles was ideal.
“She had this mournful quality,” Mr. Crutchfield said. “She could draw you into states of sadness and lament and pain that were overwhelming in their sincerity and beauty, so you liked feeling bad with her.”
Ms. Podles’s husband, Jerzy Marchwinski, a prominent pianist who curtailed his performing career because of back problems and who was a close adviser to his wife, died in November. In addition to her stepdaughter, Ms. Marchwinska, she is survived by her and her husband’s daughter, Maria Madej, and four grandchildren.
Among a wide-ranging repertoire, Ms. Podles sang songs by Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff and works with orchestra by Mahler, Brahms, Prokofiev and Penderecki. Her operatic characters extended to Verdi’s Azucena and Eboli, Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma,” Erda in Wagner’s “Ring” and Klytämnestra in Strauss’s “Elektra.” (She even played the bearded lady Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.”)
Ms. Podles appeared onstage for the last time in Barcelona in 2017, as the comically highhanded Marquise de Berkenfield in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment.”
“She had that unmistakable great-singer quality,” Mr. Crutchfield said, “of holding the audience absolutely in the palm of her hand.”