Though French-born, soprano Gina Cigna was of Italian lineage and enjoyed her first successes in Italy. Possessed of a large voice (critics still debate whether it was a spinto weight instrument or a full dramatic), she manifested a searing intensity in her stage performances, not infrequently all but flattening the more phlegmatic of her colleagues in the heat of performance. Cigna's was an unusual voice, with a vibrato loose and imperfectly defined in the lower registers, but firming to a machine gun-like velocity at the top. Her flashing eyes, expressive face, and imperious carriage complemented her singing to create an unforgettable impression. Although her career was tragically short, she lived to the age of 101, teaching for a full three decades after her retirement.
Cigna was born Geneviève Gigna and began her musical training as a pianist, entering the Paris Conservatoire, studying with Alfred Cortot and eventually graduating with a gold medal. Her husband, tenor Maurice Sens, discovered her voice and encouraged her to sing. One evening, she sang at a social gathering and was heard by the famous soprano Emma Calvé who, impressed, urged that Geneviève train her voice. Cigna subsequently studied seven years with Calvé, enduring a strange regimen of breathing exercises and clawing herself, note by note, into the soprano register (initially, she could not sing above F sharp). When Calvé finally thought her ready, Cigna was sent to Milan where an audition was arranged. Accompanying herself, she sang before Toscanini and was engaged on the spot. Her stage debut took place as Freia at La Scala on January 23, 1927. She sang under her married name as Ginette Sens.
Her first great success in a major role came in 1929, when she was presented as Donna Elvira in a December production of Don Giovanni, this time as Gina Cigna. Soon thereafter, she was offered engagements throughout Italy and ultimately sang throughout Europe, as well as in London, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and at several venues in South America. In 1931, she first undertook one of her signature roles, Norma, first at Vigevano as a trial, then at Palermo and Florence and eventually through Europe and the Americas. For the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 1933, she essayed the treacherous Abigaille in Nabucco and repeated the role at La Scala the next year.
Cigna was never loath to learn from the best. To prepare for Violetta, she sought advice from Rosina Storchio, for Tosca from Hariclea Darclée, and for Norma she studied with Giannina Russ. Two Respighi premieres were entrusted to Cigna: Maria Egiziaca (1932) and La fiamma (1934).
In London, where critics and audiences tended to be put off by strong vibratos, Cigna was less-favorably received. Neither her Elizabeth de Valois nor Marguerite (Berlioz) were appreciated in 1933, although her Tosca (1936 and 1939) was regarded as impressive. Her Trovatore Leonora was deemed dignified, but unsteady. Cigna's Metropolitan Opera debut as Aida on February 6, 1937, also drew mixed responses. While she was admired for her command of the stage, she was criticized for vocal unevenness. Her Leonora in Il trovatore was well-liked, but her Norma was charged by critic W.J. Henderson as "wanting in the grand line." Those more accustomed to a Mediterranean approach, however, regarded her highly.
Cigna survived a motor accident on the way to Vicenza in 1947, but sometime between the rollover and the end of her sold-out performance that evening, she suffered a silent heart attack whose complications ended her career. She then turned to teaching, first in Toronto, then in Milan and Siena.