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Yoko Watanabe, 51, a top opera soprano

TOKYO -- Yoko Watanabe, the first Japanese opera soprano to have starred at the world's top four opera houses, died of cancer July 15 in Milan, an official with the Japan Opera Foundation said Friday. She was 51.

She had been diagnosed with cancer in 2000.

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

In 1978, Ms. Watanabe, then 25, 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." This was to be the signature role of her career.

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

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