THE ALBANESE <i> QUALITA</i>
The scene is Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. The date: Sept. 6, 1985. The event: a concert performance of the long-neglected Stephen Sondheim musical, “Follies.”
About two-thirds of the way into the evening, a dignified figure sweeps onto the stage. It is Licia Albanese, 72, a beloved star of the Metropolitan Opera from 1940 to 1966. She is draped in a white and gold Givenchy that she later describes as “old.”
She launches into her only number, “One More Kiss,” a nostalgic evocation of a vanished operetta past. The familiar, smoky Albanese timbre is still there--warm, equal through the registers, a bright cutting edge at the top. The freshness and bloom may have vanished, but not the artistry.
The audience, filled with show-business personalities, gives Albanese an ovation. She more than holds her own in a cast that includes Barbara Cook, Lee Remick, Carol Burnett and Elaine Stritch.
Reminiscing over lunch recently at her club on Manhattan’s East Side, the diva looks beautiful and as trim as she ever was on stage. She also looks at least 15 years younger than she is. One can always tell when she is exercised on a subject, for she switches to Italian, the vowels glowing and the consonants snapping, much as they did when she sang.
Things were relatively easy for Albanese at the beginning. That does not deny the hard work and study she constantly applied, but recognition was quick and virtually universal. She found a good teacher and, almost as important, a mentor in Rosetta Pampanini, who taught her tricks of resting the voice during performance, which enabled her, even at the early stages of her career, to take on relatively heavy parts such as Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, even Maddalena in “Andrea Chenier.” She entered a competition in Bologna (her initial offering was an aria from Mascagni’s “Iris”) and won.
Albanese made her debut 50 years ago in what probably was to become her most famous role, Butterfly. The locale was the often-ferocious opera town of Parma. She appeared on that occasion against the advice of the conductor, Antonino Votto, who thought she was too young for the part. Soon, the young soprano found herself engaged all over Italy. At her La Scala debut she sang Sophie in “Werther” opposite Tito Schipa and Gianna Pederzini.
“I had timing and luck in my career, but most important, I had qualita. I listen to young singers all the time. Most of them can do anything. But the sound! Where is the qualita ? I don’t know if I could do it today. I’m not sure Beniamino Gigli and Schipa could. Why? The conductors.
“All the conductors in my day could adjust to the voices in a cast. Now they can’t or won’t. Toscanini could adjust. That, plus my technique, is why I could do some of the parts I did. That beautiful smile of Tullio Serafin looking up at you from the pit, supporting you, encouraging you.”
What does she mean by adjust ?
“The ability of a conductor to realize the difference between an orchestral forte for a light voice, like Tito Schipa’s, as opposed to the stentorian one of a (Giacomo) Lauri-Volpi. Adjustment meant achieving transparency in the supporting sound from the pit, the simple knowledge that a wind instrument using a round tone is enough to eat up even a substantial voice.”
1935 was a crucial year for her future career. She sang with Gigli for the first time, at La Scala in “La Boheme.” He was so impressed that he insisted she be engaged for his recording of the opera. The great Italian tenor told Edward Johnson, the director of the Metropolitan, about this brilliant young girl. In the meantime, she sang Liu in “Turandot” for the Coronation performances at Covent Garden in London in 1937. Her reputation was growing outside Italy.
When war broke out, most of the Italian singers were afraid to come to New York. Albanese was engaged for the ’39-40 season and decided to risk it.
Upon arrival, she was supposed to be met at the pier in New York by the brother of a girlfriend in Milan--a young stockbroker named Joseph Gimma. For some reason, he wasn’t there.
“When we finally did meet,” she recalls with a smile, “I was not impressed. Joe’s Italian was not so good. He used the personal tu instead of the formal lei or voi . I was offended.” The offense did not last. After a long courtship, during which he improved his Italian, they were married in 1945.
Albanese made her Met debut Feb. 9, 1940, as Butterfly. Success was instantaneous. She was treated as a successor to the great Lucrezia Bori, and inherited many of the Spanish diva’s roles. Her fee was $300 a week.
“That wasn’t bad money in those days,” says the lady, “and the Ritz-Carlton used to love to have artists. They only charged $8 a day.”
On the strength of her recorded Mimi, RCA Victor signed her to a contract in 1941, and her recordings helped her to build a devoted national audience. Though she was promised a complete “Butterfly” by RCA Victor in later years (to keep her from switching to the emerging London label), it never materialized. Fortunately, the Met Opera Guild did release a 1946 broadcast recording.
Dec. 6, 1942, was a milestone for the Albanese career, her first Violetta at the Met. It prompted this poignant response from Virgil Thomson in the Herald-Tribune:
”. . . she was as deeply touching in her gaiety as in her heartbreaks. . . . She used her limpid voice, her delicate person, and her excellent musicianship to equal effect in creating the character Violetta. I use the word create for her achievement, because that is what she really did . . . with skill, with art, with conviction, with beauty, and with all loveliness. . . . Miss Albanese’s is one of the great ones.”
She would sing this, her most often-performed role, 92 times at the house and on tour.
At the beginning of 1946, Walter Toscanini, the maestro’s son, called her in New York and asked her to audition for his father in the part of Mimi for a “Boheme” to be broadcast at the end of February. She was summoned to Studio 8H at RCA. On the spur of the moment, as she knocked on the door, she sang the same phrase Mimi sings at her entrance, when she knocks at the door of the Bohemians’ garret: “ Scusi !"--"Excuse me.”
Albanese went through the entire part with Arturo Toscanini accompanying her at the piano. He hired her on the spot. The following December, she returned to sing Violetta for him in the historic “Traviata” broadcast.
“He loved to be around young people so. He gave me so many expressive ideas. He was not a monster. He was not inflexible.
“Let me tell you a story few people know or realize. At a certain point in the “Traviata” Act I duet, my tenor, Jan Peerce, couldn’t sing the mezza voce Maestro wanted. He had the high line, I had the low, so Maestro had us switch the lines. I was horrified. ‘But Maestro, the critics will kill us.’ ‘Nonsense,’ he said, ‘no one will know.’ And they didn’t. Not one person.
“Maestro was not a metronome. He did what was necessary for the performance. He adjusted. He wanted me for other things too. I was asked to do his Desdemona in ‘Otello,’ but I had contracts I couldn’t cancel. I recommended Herva Nelli to him, and he took her. He asked me for the Beethoven 9th, saying only I could do the B-natural piano as he wanted it, but that didn’t work out either.
“What a joy to make music with him!”
In 1947, Albanese suffered a throat ailment that nearly killed her career. Her vocal cords were inflamed. Some doctors said she was merely strained. One told her she had a node and recommended surgery.
“Rest! Rest! Have a baby,” said her friend Bori, who begged her not to have the operation. (Her only child, Joseph Jr., was born that year.) Close to panic, Albanese relied on her own gut instinct. She took herself to Italy, to Salsamaggiore, for the cure.
“There’s iodine in the mud there, you know, and they have special methods for inhalation. People come from all over the world. The cure worked. I came home and the doctors pronounced the throat fine. There never was a node. I went to San Francisco for ‘Butterfly.’ God had been with me.”
There were those who claimed that Toscanini’s controversial fast tempo for “Sempre libera” in “La Traviata” had contributed to the vocal problem. Albanese adamantly denies it. “I loved those tempos. I wish I could have done them all the time, but on stage during a performance they have to be a bit slower, the conditions are different.”
During her Met career, she counted the French Manon, Marguerite and Micaela among her parts, as well as the occasional Mozart (first Susanna, later the Countess in “Figaro”), but it was in Verdi and especially Puccini that she came to symbolize for a generation what an Italian soprano was supposed to sound like.
Though she did not command the ethereal pianissimos of Renata Tebaldi, Albanese’s voice was ample in size for a lyric soprano and capable of rising to a grand, Italianate climax with considerable force. She gave special attention to verbal detail, and her diction was always exemplary. Even when critics noticed a certain weakness in the middle and a diminution of power in her final years, they found much to praise in her late recordings of the Letter Scene from “Eugene Onegin” (in Russian) and her complete “Manon Lescaut.”
The Rudolf Bing years beginning in 1950? “Our relationship was all right. But he was cold. Johnson was an artist, himself, and a gentleman; there was a family feeling with him. I was from the old company, Bing wanted his own singers. He tried to cut me down, my performances; but somehow, he always needed me. I’d be contracted for half a dozen performances, but end up doing 15 or 20 a season. I killed myself with him when I helped organize the unsuccessful campaign to save the old Met. Bing couldn’t tolerate the thought of possible competition. I had a contract for six performances in the new house. It was never returned to me.
“I saw him recently when we were both interviewed. Things were cordial; he seemed terribly sad and lonely. He has no one, you know. Perhaps I’ll invite him to dinner sometime. He might like that.”
She claims she never had rivals, not, at least, in the old cut-throat tradition. “I was friends from the beginning with Bidu Sayao, Jarmila Novotna and Stella Roman. Our repertories overlapped, to a degree. But there were no petty jealousies.
“Today I go only to galas and openings. I don’t know much about the ones who sing my big parts--Violetta, Mimi, Butterfly--but my friends tell me they are terrible. I haven’t heard them.
“We’re in the age of the director and it’s a curse. You can’t be inflexible, every performance the same; an artist has to be an individual. Did you see that Carmen the other night (Maria Ewing in the Met’s disastrous new production)? Dressed like a comprimario ! My God, what Rise (Stevens) must have thought! The American audience isn’t stupid, there was no applause and rightly so!”
Albanese’s last appearance at the Met was at the closing gala at the old house, April 16, 1966. She sang--what else?--"Un bel di.” In a wonderful moment--spontaneous, she says--she kissed her hand, knelt and touched it to the floor.
She was conspicuously absent from the roster of invited guests who sat onstage during the final portion of the Met Centennial concert the season before last. “My sister,” she explains, “was ill in Italy, and I had made plans to visit her. However, the invitation arrived only about a week before the performance. What kind of manners is that?”
These days, she busies herself as chairman of the Puccini Foundation, which gives help and advice to young singers. She gives master classes and still sings some concerts. All her fees go to the foundation.
She doesn’t need money. She is the mistress of an elegant Park Avenue apartment filled with religious items that reflect her devout Roman Catholicism.
Major regrets do not seem to figure in the Albanese thought process. She would like to have sung the rather dramatic role of Minnie in “La Fancuilla del West,” but asks, “Who would have conducted?” She does wish, however, that her old recordings would be reissued on CD. “I would accept no royalties. . . . I would just like the young ones to hear what we did.”
Though a staunch Republican and friend of several Presidents, especially Nixon, she was never invited to sing at the White House. Nixon told her she should have reminded him. There are still surprises, such as when Thomas Z. Shepard of RCA heard her sing a ringing high B-flat at the end of the National Anthem before a Met opening and invited her to sing in “Follies.”
She has at least one loving friend of rather liberal persuasion. The diva’s husband calls him “Commie.”
“You know,” the liberal recently reminded her, “there’s only one performance you were forced to cancel that made me happy.”
“The Dewey/Warren Victory Concert at Town Hall, the night after the 1948 election.”
Retelling the story, the diva feigns consternation.