Soprano Licia Albanese Turns 100
Licia Albanese sang 440 performances at the Metropolitan Opera from 1940 to 1966. She sang in every important theater in Europe and South America.
Albanese was Toscanini’s choice for his NBC Symphony broadcasts of La boheme and La traviata. Her recordings range from La boheme with Beniamino Gigli in 1939 to Sondheim’s Follies with Carol Burnett and Mandy Patinkin and the New York Philanthropic in 1985.
Today, Mme. Albanese directs the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation.
On July 22, 2013 Licia celebrated her 100th birthday.
Except some sources tell us the lady was born in 1909, meaning Licia Albanese may have turned 104 last week.
A few years ago I interviewed Albanese by phone from her home in New York. We began by discussing her association with conductor Arturo Toscanini.
NOTE: Madame Albanese was in every way delightful. She was well into her 90s at the time of our interview and English is not her first language. This transcription reflects as close as I can what Licia actually said.
CP: Welcome, Madame Albanese!
LA: Thank you.
CP: When did you first meet Toscanini?
LA: I used to go to his concerts at NBC. I met him there. I went in the dressing room to say hello to him. He was very happy to meet me. You know he never came to the Metropolitan because he had something, I don’t know. But I went to him and asked if I could go and see him. Then one day I was so surprised, Walter his son called and he said, Madame Albanese my father wants to speak with you. You could imagine, I could faint! You can imagine! I said Maestro Toscanini to call me?! Certainly! With open arms!
CP: When you first met him you had already sung all over the world.
You had sung at Covent Garden, Turandot?
CP: And you had recorded La boheme with Gigli?
CP: I think Toscanini heard you singing on the radio with the Met.
LA: You’re right! You’re right! He heard a Boheme.., and then he chose me to do Boheme and then Traviata.
CP: This was the 50th anniversary production of La boheme?
CP: Jan Peerce was your tenor?
LA: Yes, he was a very great companion and colleague , really kind. We sang a lot. And with Tucker. I thought Tucker’s quality of voice was more beautiful than Peerce, but Peerce was fine, but the quality and beauty was Tucker for me. But with colleagues on stage, what we say, we move hands, we move the face, we move the eyes. Now you don’t see on the stage anything, nothing.
CP: How did Toscanini compare with other conductors like Mitropoulos you sang with?
LA: Well, Mitropoulos was good. Listen, I sang a lot in Italy with Maestro Serafin.
I was very lucky to sing with the great conductors. You remember DeSabata, too?
I did Butterfly with him. Very kind always. Never, never a conductor was upset with anybody. Always with kindness. Even if young artist made a mistake, they always approached the artist with kindness.
CP: Con amore
LA: Si..Bravo! Con amore!
CP: Ricordi piacere di Serafin, because people don’t remember Serafin today.
LA: Si, che peccato. He was great. He was all the time. He wanted young people to be known. He took us first to Rome, he took all the new singers to Rome with him.
CP: Did Toscanini have a temper?
LA: Let me think.
CP: Because there are stories he would yell at the orchestra, and stamp his feet.
LA: He would say IMBECILE! NBC! And I know you can do it he would say. I know you can do it. I have faith in you! But he had to have temper to have good things.
But he used to thank everybody at the end of the performance.
He was very kind. And he would thank us.
You know, Maestro Toscanini would come to the dressing rooms before we start to sing to wish good luck to us. I said, Maestro we should come to you, but he said no, no that’s my duty to see all of my artists, that they are okay, and in good shape.
Just breathe before you come on stage. We Catholic would cross ourselves.
Then I would come running on stage like I still do!
CP: What did you think of Toscanini’s tempi in Traviata and Boheme?
LA: Well, he told me, Licia this was when I knew the composer he wanted the “Sempre libera” fast. It’s nice! It’s true! If you can do it, why you not do it?
(sings) Sempre libera follegiare…!
Even the words they tell you have to do in a hurry.
My God, do you come to the Met to see the performances?
LA: What do you think?
CP: Sometimes a little boring.
LA: Non c’e un cuore che parla.
CP: Senza personalita!
LA: Si! Senza passione.
When I do the masterclasses now I say don’t think! Make a mistake! Put your soul into the words. Don’t do f-sharp, this…that. No! Don’t think how high you go. Think on the words and then you can go in paradise…They tighten the throat. This is singing with Toscanini and Serafin and all the great conductors. Even the conductor used to teach us vocally what to do.
Now they don’t do anything. But the conductors used to tell us to do more, to do more.
In Boheme with Toscanini, we had a Musetta, very good, nice voice , pretty girl but he would say “CER-ca CER-ca” and then one day after two or three days he said what is this ‘Cerca ‘(quacking) I want emotion. CER–ca!
CP: So emotion was very important to Toscanini?
LA: Very much. They teach emotion. Forget the notes. You make the voice more beautiful.
In masterclasses today I have to tell you, I make the most ugly voices beautiful voices with the words! With words you have beauty…You say CER-ca because she suffer too to see Mimi dying on the street.
CP: Do you remember a performance of yours that was your favorite?
LA: If was my favorite I would make it too long to sing it…All of it!
I sang in St. Louis too, Fedora. Oh, listen I tell you. I did Fedora in St. Louis.
I have all the tapes, I’m telling you. I tell my son to put those tapes out. People can study.
CP: You sang Adriana Lecouvreur?
LA: I took over that from Tebaldi. Bing called me. And I was ready with everything.
I went to the Met. I dress up. They put pins in because Tebaldi was taller and I was a little short, but I made myself tall!
CP: I have your recording of the Adriana, and I have La rondine.
LA: Si. With that beautiful, beautiful tenor. Who? Barioni. Beautiful.
And the scene we make together! Nobody could tell me what to do on stage. They tell me somebody else has to do. I said you don’t know!
You don’t do opera. Everyone comes in the opera to take over. The people gets boring. You have to change. I used to change every performance what I have to do. Director now, and you can say this, they don’t know the score. They don’t know the books! When the opera story written, that’s why they make a mistake. They don’t even know the score.
CP: I know you didn’t like Butterfly at the Met a few years ag.o
LA: Yes! Now I see the Met Madama Butterfly with puppets.
Can you believe that puppet when they put on the stage.
CP: Do you still go to the Metropolitan?
LA: No. No more. Non posso. Because one time I went and I booed.
I booed del Monaco. The son. He said well, I know you booed me. But I said Listen, but learn the opera! Like your father used to sing, he was so great. And he said Don’t mention my father! I don’t want to be known as son of my father!
But del Monaco how beautiful he was on the stage. Every artist in my time has own costume.
Not the Metropolitan costumes. And the public was interested to come and say we want to see which costume you are going to put on, all the operas I sang, I change costumes.
CP: Did you have a favorite tenor? That’s a bad question for a prima donna.
LA: To tell you the truth, no. They were all great!
First one was Gigli, in fact Gigli mention my name to Mr. Johnson. He was in search all the time young artists and Gigli mentioned my name. Licia is one of the great young sopranos to come to the Metropolitan.
CP: And he was right!
CP: The public alway knows. I thank you so much for your time.
LA: Thank you very much. You are so kind. Big kiss! Ciao! ciao!