16 August 2014
Licia Albanese, 105, Italian Soprano Who Brought Puccini Heroines to Life at the Old Met, Has Died
Licia Albanese as Cio-Cio-San, a signature role
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Bari, Italy, July 23, 1909 — New York, NY, August 15, 2014
On February 9, 1965, Birgit Nilsson’s sensational new Salome unveiled herself for the second time before an enthusiastic crowd at the old Met on Thirty-ninth Street. But several blocks to the north, Carnegie Hall housed the real opera event in town that night. Another diva was holding court, paying tribute to her favorite composer, Puccini, as the packed house paid tribute to her. After an association that began four hundred performances and twenty-five years earlier — to the day — and included a love affair between prima donna and audience practically unrivaled in the company’s history, Licia Albanese basked in the torrent of bravas she had earned so well. And as critic Alan Rich pointed out in the following day’s New York Herald Tribune, the ovations “were not merely for what she has done in the past. They were also for what she can still do.” For anyone listening to the soprano that evening, as she delivered dramatically nuanced renditions of arias from all twelve Puccini operas — vocally secure all the way up to a still-glorious high C, with a natural old-school grasp of style — it would have been impossible to imagine that in little more than a year, Albanese would sing her last performance, in the house she loved so much.
Licia Albanese was, for her army of admirers, synonymous with the “old” Met during the middle of the twentieth century; many of her great colleagues, such as Callas and Tebaldi, might be referred to respectfully by their last names, but Albanese was held in such warm affection that many of her fans called her simply “Licia.” She made her debut at the Met on February 9, 1940, as Cio-Cio-San, and sang 427 performances of seventeen roles with the company. Her final Met appearance came at the farewell gala on the closing night of the old house, April 16, 1966, when she sang a thrilling performance of “Un bel dì,” dropped to her knees and softly kissed the stage that had been her home throughout the great and glorious years of her career. Many of those who attended remembered that the moment felt like the almost palpable passing of an era — which it was.
Licia Albanese was born in Bari, on the southwest coast of Italy, on July 23, 1909. There is some confusion surrounding the matter. In the ’70s, one publicist made it 1907, which is unlikely; the program from the Royal Opera’s Coronation Season in 1937 places it at 1911 — remotely possible. As with many great divas born in the early years of the last century, when there was still room for legend to take precedence over something as squeaky clean as absolute accuracy, Albanese’s birth date and some details of her early life and career are subject to slightly different versions from different sources — including the soprano’s own retelling over the years. One chapter of the Albanese legend describes how, despite the fact that she sang in church and the Albanese family made their own music at home, young Licia wanted to be a dancer or perhaps an actress — until one day her piano teacher discovered the quality of the voice, and her father, who had an importing business, persuaded her to study seriously. As the story goes, it was her father’s birthday, and as a surprise, Licia’s teacher, Rosetta de Leoni, secretly coached the girl to sing at the party. Her big number, at age twelve, was “Vissi d’arte,” from Tosca. Licia was so afflicted with nerves that she had to sing the aria with her back to the audience. But Papa Albanese was thrilled, and serious vocal studies began with Emanuel de Rosa, a noted tenor who had retired to Bari. Subsequently, Licia’s father became seriously ill, and on a trip to Naples to see a specialist, he took sixteen-year-old Licia along to sing for Maestro Bellini, a descendant of the composer, who was very impressed. But it was not until she promised her father, on his deathbed, that she would forge a career that she moved to Milan and, with financial help from a cousin, studied with the great soprano Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi, who had been particularly identified with Madama Butterfly. The teacher instilled in her the importance of the meaning behind the words, the necessity of conveying emotion to the audience.
An amazing fairy-tale-style succession of events occurred in 1934 and ’35. Albanese found out about a national vocal competition from a friend the very day the competition was closing and managed to get in at the eleventh hour. Believing Baldassare-Tedeschi would deem her not yet ready, she entered secretly. One of three hundred singers, Licia won the first round in Milan and traveled to Bologna for the finals, where she competed every day for a week before a tough panel of judges that included Rosetta Pampanini and Luisa Tetrazzini. Licia nailed first prize with the enormously difficult and dramatic “Un dì ero piccina,” from Mascagni’s Iris. Back in Milan, in 1934, she attended a performance of Butterfly at the Teatro Lirico and was pulled from the audience and thrown onstage to replace the soprano in the title role — singing it for the first time. Cio-Cio-San was also her “official” debut role before the notoriously demanding audience in Parma, in 1935. Her performance was a triumph, and the young singer found steady work in Italian theaters, singing everything from Wagner’s Elsa to Refice’s Cecilia, gaining invaluable experience. At one point, she found herself onstage with Beniamino Gigli, who so admired the soprano that he requested her for his 1938 recording of La Bohème and recommended her to the Metropolitan Opera. She made debuts at La Scala (as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi), Rome and Geneva, and the 1937 Coronation Season in London featured her Liù in Turandot — her Covent Garden debut, and a performance of which recorded fragments exist, displaying the trademark Albanese sound. In 1941, she made her debuts at San Francisco Opera, again as Cio-Cio-San, and Chicago Civic Opera, as Micaela in Carmen.
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Albanese was an ideal verismo artist of the time. She may not have possessed a sound as beautifully limpid as that of other Italian sopranos, but it was a voice of incomparable profile and cut — instantly recognizable to anyone who heard it even once. Always, she sang with full emotional commitment and stunning dramatic intensity; actor/comedian Charles Nelson Reilly, a lifelong Albanese admirer, once aptly observed that, if forced to, she might sacrifice the voice somewhat, but she never sacrificed the word. She invested her roles with enormous thought and preparation, no matter how many times she had sung them before. One of the challenges of Cio-Cio-San, she felt, was that the voice must be light in Act I, to underline the character’s youthful innocence, then gradually darken in the two successive acts, as the tragedy deepens. She took enormous pleasure in bringing certain plangent details to her characterizations — among them letting the wedding veil drop to the ground as Butterfly and Pinkerton enter their house at the close of Act I — “a little thing,” she told a reporter in 1947, “but effective.”
She worked with another legendary perfectionist, Arturo Toscanini, who requested her for Mimì in the fiftieth-anniversary performance of
. She loved working with him and was equally delighted when he asked her to sing the title role in
with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1946. “We artists had been putting in extra notes, dragging here, dragging there,” she remembered. “This changed when we studied with Toscanini. For the first act he would say, ‘Think of champagne. It’s gay, light and fast!’ For the third act, ‘Think of sick, greedy people, the whirl of money, kept women — it’s all in the music.’” Under Toscanini, Violetta — which she had already sung many times at the Met — became one of her immortal recorded performances. In Act IV’s “Addio del passato,” the snuffing out of life within Violetta is overwhelmingly moving. Albanese’s remains one of the most vivid, spontaneous and nakedly real Violettas on disc.
Albanese had specific ideas about the nature of acting for the opera stage, feeling that it was a mistake to pursue absolute naturalism or to replicate acting techniques from the screen. “The stage is a world apart,” she once said, “and the opera stage something more specialized still…. You have to add poetry, too.” She believed that Puccini’s roles were superbly crafted, but she always resisted the temptation to chew the scenery too much, underlining that Tosca was “a great diva in an era of poetic elegance,” not a common, hot-tempered shrew. Ultimately, she always believed in the innate dignity and aristocracy of Puccini’s heroines. She believed it was important to begin not with the notoriously tricky role of Manon Lescaut but with Mimì or Liù. “Butterfly,” she once said, “can break the voice.” She regretted never getting to sing Minnie in La Fanciulla del West, but she did sing her first Magda in La Rondine in 1960, in Philadelphia. She also expanded her repertoire carefully, adding roles such as Verdi’s Desdemona, Massenet’s Manon and Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Explaining her remarkable longevity to OPERA NEWS’s editor Robert Jacobson in 1974, she said, “I never pushed on the low notes, except for some dramatic moments. I was taught to do it with accent and not with the voice. It is important to keep the middle voice light, even when dramatic, or you lose the high notes. The drama comes in accenting the words and with diction.”
Albanese sang in a total of forty-one Met broadcasts; her broadcast record was Violetta, with ten separate airings. Her total of eighty-seven Violettas still stands as a Met record. She was busy in other areas as well: from 1942 to 1947, she had a weekly radio program, Treasure Hour of Song, in which she branched out to sing operetta and Broadway tunes. She had a happy private life, too, as the wife of stockbroker Joseph Gimma, who soon took on a major role in the handling of her career. They had a child, Joseph, Jr., born in 1952. She had enjoyed very happy relations with Met general manager Edward Johnson through the 1940s and successfully made the transition to the new regime of Rudolf Bing in 1950. She also appeared on television on The Ed Sullivan Show and Voice of Firestone, as well as in the 1956 Warner Bros. musical drama Serenade, starring Mario Lanza and Joan Fontaine. But by the 1960s, she was heard at the company far less often. (Albanese maintained that it was her determination to save the old Met on Thirty-ninth and Broadway, while the new building at Lincoln Center was in the works, that damaged her standing with Bing.) Although she never appeared at the New Met, which opened in 1966, she was frequently an enthusiastic — and voluble — member of the audience. At the opening of Giancarlo del Monaco’s new production of Madama Butterfly in the mid-1990s, Albanese took exception to the director’s decision to have Pinkerton (Richard Leech) begin to disrobe Cio-Cio-San (Catherine Malfitano) onstage and erupted with a robust “BOO!” from her orchestra seat.
She was also much in evidence as the guiding spirit of the Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation (an American counterpart to the established Italian organization), which she founded in 1974. For more than two decades, she presided over the Foundation’s concerts at Lincoln Center, handing out cash prizes to young singers, welcoming guest-star colleagues such as Fedora Barbieri, Leyla Gencer, Lucine Amara and Robert Merrill, and often performing herself; her opening-concert rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” complete with flag-waving gestures and a still-impressive B-flat, was always eagerly anticipated by the audience.
In her later years, Albanese’s energy was unflagging. She graced the Met Centennial Gala in 1983 and the opening of the refurbished War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco in 1997. She also taught master classes extensively, worked as a stage director, and appeared as Old Heidi in the New York Philharmonic’s all-star concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies in 1986; her fine interpretation of “One More Kiss” embodied the musical’s themes of missed opportunity and regret. Almost to the end of her life, she continued to attend performances in New York. At a 2011 performance of La Rondine presented at Hunter College by Martina Arroyo’s Prelude to Performance program, Albanese, now in her tenth decade, could be heard in the audience, softly singing along, having miraculously retained not only every note of the vocal line but the orchestral passages as well. Hers was a life truly centered in music, and she was gifted with the soul of a poet.
BRIAN KELLOW and IRA SIFF