Soprano embraced by Toscanini and Sondheim takes her final curtain call at 105.
The Italian-born soprano who was Toscanini’s choice for recording Violetta and Mimì has died in New York at the remarkable age of 105. In a long and varied career Licia Albanese clocked up over 400 performances at the Metropolitan Opera and was plucked from vocal retirement for the legendary 1985 performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies in Concert.
Felicia Albanese was born in 1909 near Bari in Southern Italy and studied with Puccini contemporary and specialist Giuseppina Baldassare-Tedeschi. She made her unofficial singing debut in Milan in 1934, when she stood in at short notice as Cio-Cio San in a performance of Madama Butterfly – a part that she would go on to make her own in the years ahead. She went on to debut officially the following year, soon taking on the lyric Puccini roles of Manon Lescaut, Mimì and Liu as well as Michäela in Carmen and Violetta in La Traviata.
Success in Italy led to invitations to perform similar repertoire in England and France and Albanese eventaully made her Met debut in 1940 in Madama Butterfly. From that moment on she stayed in New York performing at the Met for 26 unbroken seasons – a total of 427 performances in 16 operas. Other roles she encompassed included Massenet’s Manon, Nedda in I Pagliacci, Adriana Lecouvreur and eventually Tosca.
It was while singing in America that Arturo Toscanini hired her for the roles of Mimì and Violetta in his now legendary NBC live opera recordings, captured for posterity by RCA Victor. Generally considered an undemanding prima donna, there were those who suggested that the dictatorial Toscanini preferred her to some of the more feisty options at the time, but the results and the testimony of her co-star, the great tenor Jan Peerce pay tribute to a flexible singing technique allied with a convincing, sensitive dramatic portrayal (she famously visited wards for consumptives to prepare for Traviata and Bohème). Writing of her Violetta, the composer and frequently waspish music critic Virgil Thomson said: “She used her limpid voice, her delicate person and her excellent musicianship to equal effect in creating the character. I use the word ‘create’ for her achievement because that is what she really did.”
During the war years she took part in benefits, entertained the troops and even had her own weekly radio show, going on to become a well-known name across America. Her regular stage and recording partners at the time included Jussi Björling and the late Carlo Bergonzi. In 1966, following an argument with Rudolph Bing, she left the Met for the San Francisco Opera among others, singing well into the 1970s. In 1973, she took part in a televised open-air concert with Luciano Pavarotti, famously accepting the offer of his scarf during a particularly windy moment.
It was after hearing Albanese singing the national anthem from her regular box at a Met opening night in 1985 that Stephen Sondheim asked her to play the role of the former operetta star Heidi Schiller in a concert performance of his musical Follies at Avery Fisher Hall. That concert too is preserved on a classic CD set.
After her retirement, Albanese went on to develop many young talents as both a teacher and through the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, which she and her husband founded in 1974 to help promising singers. A regular fixture in New York musical circles well into our own century, her warm personality and determination will be sadly missed. “Diva? Hah! I was never a diva,” Albanese told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. “Only God makes a diva. No, just call me a plain singer with lots of expression.”
Licia Albanese died on August 15, 2014, at the age of 105 at her home in Manhattan.