Violetta Villas dies at 73

Polish singer performed in Vegas, on bigscreen

Polish singer Violetta Villas, a coloratura soprano who spurned opera for popular music and had a wide-ranging career that included a stint as a cabaret star in Las Vegas performing with the likes of Sinatra and Streisand as well as appearances in American movies, died late Monday at her home in Lewin Klodzki, a village in southern Poland. She was 73.

Local prosecutors ordered an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

Villas was born Czeslawa Cieslak in 1938 to a Polish coal miner’s family in Belgium.

A unique talent with a trademark cascade of curly blond hair, Villas had a voice that spanned four octaves. Rather then pursue an operatic career, she preferred popular music, a genre that brought her wide popularity in Poland — to which the family returned in 1948 after WWII — and abroad.

She once said her career was launched in 1960 by the head of state Polish Radio, composer Wladyslaw Szpilman — whose own story of survival during the Holocaust was the theme of director Roman Polanski’s 2003 Oscar-winning movie “The Pianist.”

From 1966-69, Villas sang at the Casino de Paris at the famed Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, performing with luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Paul Anka and Eartha Kitt. She also recorded songs for Capitol Records.

Villas also appeared in movies, including 1969’s “Paint Your Wagon” with Lee Marvin and “Heaven With a Gun” with Glenn Ford.

In 1970, she returned to Poland to tend to her ailing mother, but later the communist authorities refused to approve her passport. She was not able to return to the U.S. until 1987, when she had a tour, starting at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Villas was known as a colorful personality who refused to bend to the requirements of a career. Since the late 1980s, she had given only occasional performances and sometimes failed to turn up for studio recordings.

Villas was married and divorced twice. She is survived by her only son, Krzysztof.

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