Licia Albanese, Soprano Who Specialized in Puccini Roles, Dies at 105

AUDIO: The Vocal Scene with George Jellinek Spotlights Licia Albanese (1986)

Saturday, August 16, 2014 - 04:00 PM

Licia Albanese with WNYC Music Director Herman Neuman in the studio in 1961 Licia Albanese with WNYC Music Director Herman Neuman in the studio in 1961 (Photo courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives)

Licia Albanese, an opera singer whose Puccini and Verdi interpretations came to symbolize for a generation the sound of an Italian soprano, died on Friday in New York City. She was 105.

Her death was announced Saturday by her priest, the Rev. John Kamas.

Gifted with an ample voice and superb diction (if occasionally imprecise pitch), Albanese had a notably lengthy career. She was one of the Metropolitan Opera’s most admired singers in the postwar era, from her debut in 1940 as the doomed geisha in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly to her retirement in 1966. During that period she sang more than 400 performances at the Met while also becoming a mainstay at San Francisco Opera.

Albanese made numerous recordings for RCA Victor and starred opposite leading men including Robert Merrill, Beniamino Gigli and Jussi Bjorling.

Born in Bari, Italy in 1909, Albanese made her operatic debut as Butterfly in 1934, in the often-ferocious opera town of Parma. She appeared against the advice of the conductor, Antonino Votto, who thought she was too young for the part. Soon, however, the young soprano found herself engaged all over Italy and eventually, at Covent Garden in London.

When World War II broke out, most Italian singers were afraid to come to New York. Albanese, aware of her growing reputation abroad, decided to risk it. After her Met debut in Butterfly, Cio-Cio San soon became her signature role. She sang it more than 300 times, 72 of them at the Met. Although she was promised a complete Butterfly when she signed with RCA Victor in 1941, it never materialized; however, the Met Opera Guild did release a 1946 broadcast recording.

 
During her career, Albanese took on some French roles (Manon, Marguerite and Micaela), as well as the occasional Mozart (first Susanna, later the Countess in Figaro), but it was in Verdi and especially Puccini with which she made her mark. Among her credits from the 1940s were historic radio broadcasts with the NBC Symphony and Arturo Toscanini, in the leading roles of La Boheme and La Traviata.

Unlike some opera singers of her generation, Albanese wasn’t given to public feuds or rivalries with other artists. But like most of the great sopranos, she did find herself on the wrong side of Met general manager Rudolph Bing on more than one occasion: early on, she staunchly defended the crossover tenor Mario Lanza at a time when his star was falling with the serious opera establishment. Worried that he was throwing his career away, she became something of a mother figure to Lanza when others were keeping their distance.

After her retirement, Albanese became chairwoman of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, which awards scholarships to young singers. She also taught master classes at Juilliard and Marymount Manhattan College. She lived out her later years in a Park Avenue apartment filled with religious items that reflect her devout Roman Catholicism.

“She was peaceful, radiant and beautifully youthful at the moment of her death at 105 years,” said Kamas, her priest, who noted that she died on the Feast of Our Lady's Assumption, a Catholic holiday.

Albanese’s portrayal of the wayward heroine of Manon Lescaut earned particular critical praise. Of the fabled death scene, she once recalled: "The best note is the last breath. All you hear is that breath when I die. You breathe and then you die. Now if you see 'Manon,' if they don't breathe, how do you know they're dead?"

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Comments [11]

Tony La marca from Westbury, N.Y.

I came to the opera in the 40's thanks to the Met broadcasts. I was in my early teens. I grew up with theses singers Albanese, Milanov, Bjoerling, De Stefano, Warren Pinza, along with the German wing. They made an indelible impression on a young teenager. To this day when I see Butterfly or Boheme or Manon Lescaut or Aida or Rigoletto I always compare what I see and Hear today to my early years. Those performances when I was growing up are etched into my brain, and today's performances just don't seem to add up to those of the past. Warren's Rigiletto, Albanese's Butterfly and Milanov's Aida unbeatable

Aug. 19 2014 02:36 PM
Larry from Chicago

Mme. Albanese was a highly distinctive operatic artist whose voice became an acquired taste. But once that taste was acquired, her already omnipresent interpretative genius and "brush stroke" vocal touches made her one of the greatest operatic sopranos of her generation in New York. She was a brilliant actress, and she made every stage move mean something. Fortunately, she can be heard in multitudes of Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts in operas such as Butterfly, her signature role, Mimi in "Boheme", Tosca, Manon Lescaut, Pagliacci, Manon, Faust, etc. She was a completely honest and sincere performer who gave her utmost in virtually every performance she sang. May he magnificent legacy continue to flourish and thrive via her Puccini Foundation.

Aug. 18 2014 05:46 PM
Hugh Waddy from Jonesboro, Ga

I never found Madam Albanese to have the negative aspects of "diva." In the early years of her retirement I asked her about singing something for a benefit for the Clarke School for the Deaf held at the Waldorf. She accepted. After rehearsing "Un bel di" at her apartment we walked over to the Waldorf. She sang, ending with a solid high Bb, and afterwards we walked back, all in simplicity and humility.

Aug. 18 2014 04:26 PM
WQXR

Just for the record: we did in fact present some musical performances of Ms. Albanese over the weekend. Because they were added at the last minute, our playlists did not automatically update with the information, but the additions will be reflected momentarily.

In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this archival broadcast of Albanese with Richard Tucker, recorded by our sister station WNYC in 1958:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/licia-albanese-and-richard-tucker-all-puccini-program/

Aug. 18 2014 02:10 PM
Bernie from UWS

Peter - you're right. A major singer dies and WQXR can't even be bothered to play a single aria or scene of hers. You wonder what they think should take precedence. The thousandth airing of the Peer Gynt Suite?

Aug. 18 2014 11:00 AM
WQXR

@Sanford, you are correct. We have updated the post to reflect Robert Merrill's status as a baritone, not a tenor. Our apologies for the confusion.

Aug. 18 2014 08:46 AM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

The blog,as first posted, said that "Albanese made numerous recordings for RCA Victor and starred opposite tenors Robert Merrill,Beniamino Gigli,and Jussi Bjorling."After I pointed out the error,the text was revised.Hopefully,WQXR will acknowledge the revision, and put my observation into the proper context.

Aug. 18 2014 01:59 AM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

I note that, over the last two days, based on my visual scan of the playlists, there has been no airing of any recording by Ms. Albanese to note her passing. Here is the station that pretends to be the voice of classical music in New York, yet this long-time New York resident and "institution" is left unheard. But, we did get to hear (yet again, for the second or third time this week, it seems), the "Barbiere di Siviglia" overture, and a Peer Gynt suite (with none of that pesky singing that's in the full score). Who is this station aimed at, anyway?

Also: to Sanford Rothenberg: the article refers to Merrill as a "leading man", not a tenor. As a baritone myself, I have no objection to that description!

Aug. 17 2014 07:46 PM
Marjan Kiepura from New Hampshire

As the son of Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura, I grew up hearing the name Licia Albanese from early childhood. My father often sang with Licia at the Met in earlier years. She was as great singer, artist and colleague. Later we became good friends through my mother’s association with the Licia Albanese Puccini Foundation gala concerts. Licia was a golden individual with a unique spirit. She was indeed a diva in the greatest sense. God bless you Licia, we love you.

Jane Knox-Kiepura and Marjan Kiepura, and the Knox and Kiepura Families

Aug. 17 2014 11:47 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

I join other opera lovers in mourning the passing of Madame Albanese. I'm one who knows her through her recordings. Among favorites are her "Madama Butterfly" at the Met in 1941 with Armand Tokatyan with Gennaro Papi conducting. Her 1954 "Manon Lescaut" recording with Jussi Bjoerling is for me a nonpareil achievement. Her early 50's recording of extracts from "La Bohe'me" with Giuseppe di Stefano, Patrice Munsel, Leonard Warren with the RCA Orchestra conducted by Renato Cellini and Victor Trucco makes one long for a complete recording with them, but the treasured "La Bohe'me" recording with Beniamino Gigli from 1938 with the La Scala forces under Umberto Berretoni is available. She made an appearance on "The Voice of Firestone" when it was simulcast on t.v. in 1951. She sang the "Ballatella" from "I Pagliacci", "Turna a Surriento" and the title song from the Grace Moore film "One Night of Love" that she saw and admired while living in Italy. She reminisced about her career and working with Toscanini in the NBC Symphony broadcasts of "La Traviata" and "La Bohe'me" as a guest on "Toscanini, the Man Behind the Legend" that's available on the internet.

Aug. 17 2014 06:05 AM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

Albanese,like Bergonzi,achieved popularity despite vocal flaws (in her case the imprecise pitch noted in the piece,and a nasality that was off-putting to some).After all these years,we've learned that Robert Merrill was a tenor.Live and learn??

Aug. 16 2014 07:01 PM

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