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?"