Soprano Licia Albanese
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
During her illustrious career, Licia Albanese was one of the most
well-known and beloved artists. She sang with
Toscanini, and had her own radio program for awhile. Her years at
the Metropolitan Opera included quite a number of Saturday afternoon
broadcasts. At the bottom of this page are two brief biographical
sketches. Along with some duplication of information, each has
its own unique references, so rather than try to combine them, I have
simply posted them as found elsewhere on the internet.
Besides my own radio work in Chicago, I also contributed interviews to
several journals, include Wagner News,
The Opera Journal, and the Massenet Newsletter. It was
for this French-oriented one that I contacted Mme. Albanese early in
1988. Though we spoke of the two settings of the Manon story (Massenet and Puccini),
we also talked of other aspects of her renowned repertoire. The
role-specific portions were published the following year, and a decade
later I was able to use another portion on the air when presenting one
of her complete operas. Now the entire encounter has been
transcribed and is presented on this website. As I type, she is
about to celebrate her 99th birthday, and it is fitting that we pay
tribute to her as she enters her centennial year.
When we spoke, her English was heavily accented by her native Italian,
but she made herself very clear about every idea. Sometimes her
sentences were choppy or incomplete, and I have left a few of those
patterns intact in this transcript. They gave a sense of urgency
to her thoughts, and this came through quite often as we spoke.
Here is that conversation . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Thank you
so very much for speaking with me.
Licia Albanese: Too bad I
couldn't come in
Chicago! I would be really very happy to be there!
sang in Chicago a number of years ago. Tell me about your
of being here.
LA: I sang there with
private companies and with the
Metropolitan, so I sang so many times I have to
go back so many years that I can't remember them all. But I sang
all my operas
there — Butterfly
most, and Bohème and Traviata, Micaëla and then Faust
and Pagliacci. I didn't
sing Liù there; I sang that just in
California and New York. I think you know better than I do about
the list... [Laughs]
BD: Tell me the secret of
LA: Why do you ask me
this? Is it difficult to sing Puccini?
BD: Is it
difficult? More difficult than Verdi?
LA: No, that's why you
BD: That's right.
LA: I heard from so many
sopranos said that Puccini's
very difficult to sing, but I don't think so.
BD: It was not difficult
LA: No. Not
difficult for me, but then I was a lyric soprano, and these are mostly
voices. I was very pleased, and it was too bad I couldn't sing
more of Verdi's dramatic operas, which I adore. I could sing only
Falstaff, and Desdemona, and La traviata. I also sang La Messa da Requiem in California.
BD: With so many
beautiful roles to choose from, how did
you decide which roles you would sing and which roles you would decline?
LA: I have to look at the
role. Even maestro Merola asked me to sing Tosca. I said, "Let's wait a
little more for Tosca.
She's very, very
dramatic in action, not vocally because
if you have high notes, the second act's okay. If you
don't have it you scream, and that's terrible. [Laughter]
The most dramatic thing is in the duet
with Scarpia, and it is dramatic even to the last touch, and later to
describe again what she did with Scarpia when she killed him.
Usually they don't make all the same reactions
like they did in second act. When you see a movie and then
somebody tells you the story, they come in and tell you what
happened. So I used to do that the last act of Tosca this
way. I did the same staging, the same movements I did when I
killed Scarpia to show Mario what I did. That becomes
dramatic, too. But I think the dramatic comes when you really not
just push the voice, because then
the voice stops; it doesn't go on to the audience. It
isn't just to have this kind of beautiful shining voice; it must
project. We had so many artists that had voices that were smaller
than mine — Schipa, for
example, or Cesare Valletti, or Gigli.
They were lyric. Cesare Valletti and Schipa were leggiero, light,
and you could hear those voices even at the back of the opera.
That means they never pushed; they just left the voice floating.
I tell to the young people when I see them, "Why don't you
make your voice float in the theater?" Not to do [vocalizes in a
coarse, constricted, and unsophisticatedly undulating tone] "Uhhhhhh,"
where you push and you keep the breath in the
back. Instead, the breath should come out. You need to
do [demonstrates singing in a light, relaxed tone of voice]
"Ahhhhh." [Demonstrates the same thing, starting
more softly and gradually increasing in volume]
"Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh." This goes because the note is on the
breath. I don't see them because I don't teach; I try to
teach, but I couldn't. I want to be free. I need to do a
lot of things. I don't know if you heard, I sang the Follies
here in New York two years ago, and then I sang it in Houston for a
month. I was there the month of June, and they enjoyed it so much.
BD: In the operatic
performance, where is
the balance between the music and the drama?
LA: The balance? I
don't even think what is the balance. [Chuckles]
BD: Which is more
important, then, the actual vocal singing
or the dramatic effect?
LA: Well, both! If
you do dramatic effect, and then you
ruin the voice, it's not good even when you cry! The voice
should be firm. That's why I have to look, and then they say,
"Put expression, but don't ruin the voice." Even Toscanini
used to say that. We learned this in Italy from
all the great old artists. For every action, if
you forget your singing the voice goes on the floor. When you do
something, sometimes when they sing they forget they're singing.
They move their hands or put their hands very straight or they are very
nervous and they go here, they go there. Women kick their long
trains out of the way. I say, "Don't do
that. That's not good. You must be natural in everything
you do." You have seen so many artists kick their trains.
That's ridiculous! I saw great artists to do
that. They should do that slowly and then turn around because
sometimes it comes between your legs! You could fall down!
But I never thought that they did it in a natural way. I love to
act a lot. The more I can act, the more I love to sing!
That's why I miss so much, in the opera, the dramatic Verdi
operas. I miss so much action; there is so much drama in
those artists. If I could
sing La Forza del Destino I
would do so many
beautiful things, but the voice couldn't do it! I
couldn't be such a soprano. When I started to sing
with Toscanini at the beginning of my career, they would ask me to sing
dramatic operas, but if you sing them, the orchestra would play so
loud! So all the voice is
missing, even a dramatic voice. In Turandot or Aïda, you don't hear the voice
of the singers
because the conductors don't have taste; they don't have restraint;
they like to do symphony concerts. I said all the time to them,
"You do symphony when you
symphony, but when you do opera, you cover the artist." Even
Toscanini used to say that. The music should be under the
voice. Listen to Karajan. For Freni or all those people who
are very lyric like
me, he did a beautiful job with those beautiful voices,
to allow them to sing dramatic operas.
BD: Are we losing the
great tradition amongst conductors?
LA: Yes! You may be
too young to remember, but that's the tradition! When they
had singers, they put the orchestra properly down. I sang with
Schipa many, many times. I started my career with Schipa and
Gigli, and the orchestra was really
very much under the singers. Even in the big theater you could
them! They had such great voices, Schipa especially. He was
a light, lyric tenor with a beautiful quality of voice and a great mezza voce. The conductors
muted the orchestra very low, and then the public enjoyed those
beautiful quality of voices. Now they put big singers even in
roles like Lucia. I asked if Caruso could
make the mezza voce, and Rosa
Ponselle told me about this. She was a dramatic soprano, and I
said, "Rosa, how could you sing
Traviata with a mezza voce like this, just to show
you're a sick
woman? You cannot sing it like Aïda."
She said, "You have to restrain the voice when you do certain operas
which are not like Aïda
or Forza del Destino or
Norma." This is right
because I used to sing with full voice in Traviata, though my voice was not
too big! And in Butterfly,
too! In the first act of Butterfly,
I come in with a voice like a
young girl! The great artists told
us to sing in this way! Then you grow in the opera like you grow
in life! In the second act she was a mother, and third act was a
tragedy. For the Japanese, tragedy is tremendous — worse
people. Oh, yes! Much worse!
BD: So then you changed
your vocal technique a little
bit from opera to opera?
LA: Yes!! Oh,
yes. And Bohème,
too. She is very frail. You cannot sing [imitates singing
in a deep,
booming, inappropriately heavy voice] "Mi chiamano
Mimì," which I hear often. They ruin the character!
They ruin the soul of
Mimì. Toscanini said, "I want for
Musetta a big voice. I want a lyrical singer for Musetta because
Musetta is a healthy, healthy girl.
BD: Did you change your
technique at all from house to
house, from a large house to a small house?
LA: No, no, no.
No! This is because the voice should be soft all the time.
No, no, we never thought of this. Years ago we would not have to
push if it is a big house. No! When I started to sing and
when I came to this country, we really
had different conductors. I don't want to say we don't have good
conductors now, but they don't care for voices. That's what I
think, because they are
very good conductors. Now we see so
many; they go, they come, I don't know what is
the expectation in the opera. I was 22 years here at the Met and
we had the
same conductors. They were so nice with us. They tell us to
sing mezza voce or
pianissimo. When I did
Traviata with the maestro — Toscanini
said to Peerce and Merrill, [shouts] "Don't sing troppo forte! Don't you hear
woman is dying!" I said, "Maestro, please, can I sing a little forte
myself?" On the microphone, is very difficult to
sing pianissimo! And he
said, [in a high, excited and impatient
tone of voice] "No, no, no, I want you to do this. What are you
singing, Gioconda?" I
told him it was very difficult to maintain this, to sustain
this very pianissimo, and he
said, "In the theater it's
easier because in the theater you give little more." When I was
singing, I did a lot on television and on NBC radio. I had a
ten years! So, the mezza voce
had to be a piano or even
pianissimo. But in the
opera, no. In the opera you can leave just
the balance more than with the microphones. When we make records
with microphone, we cannot go far away or closer. We have to
shape the voice. If you would do a low note pianissimo, you had to
shape it with the microphone at the same distance.
BD: Are you pleased with
the recordings that you made
over your career?
LA: Yes, I'm pleased with
a few, but I can
criticize myself all the time, even my talking voice.
[Laughs] I'm a great critic, and when I saw maestro
Toscanini it was just the same. He was critical when he used to
listen to his records. He always said, "No, this is not good,
good, the tempo is not right and this is not like
that." He thinks just the same way I
used to think. When you criticize yourself, you become somebody
else. We never did the opera in the same way, musically or the
staging, too. Opera is born free. When
somebody is a good actor, we always changed things. We sing so
many times Traviata, Bohème
and Manon and Tosca. Every performance,
they taught us to
change position! To change acting! Even
vocally we changed.
BD: And this kept it
LA: We did so many new
things! That's what we left
us us free with the stage
director because they saw we had this
great gift to be actors and actress — like
Schipa, like Gigli. They left us free, and if somebody couldn't
move or couldn't do this, then they took them in the room and
they taught them how to do it. So that was opera. Now they
put the chalk
there on the floor and you have to put the point there. It is so
cannot even see. This is a mess! Really, it's a
mess. My son asked, "Why is it so dark?" When we were
young, we would see well. It is not like now. I put on my
eyeglasses and I don't even see.
BD: Do you
feel that opera works well on the television?
LA: Yes; you can see
television [chuckles] better than in the
BD: Let me ask about a
couple of roles. Tell me the
differences and similarities between the two Manons — the
and the Puccini.
LA: First I read the
book, if there is a book, of the opera that I always sing. When I
did Donna Anna or Nozze di Figaro,
we have books of these
beautiful roles. With Manon, I read the book. I find the
Manon of Massenet very
French, elegant like a powder puff. [Chuckles] When
I study the Puccini, Puccini was Puccini, dramatic
and Italian. But I read the book and I found out very much.
For instance, des Grieux was a very, very stubborn man! This is
like a Sicilian mind, like where I
come from in Southern Italy! Very,
very stubborn. I find out the two operas had the
same thing — light and then dramatic. In
of Massenet, you cannot put something dramatic like Puccini did in
the last act with "Sola, perduta,
abbandonata." This is a heavy,
beautiful aria. That's the
difference. The Massenet opera is very light, very chic, but both
of them are beautiful.
BD: Are they really two
different sides of the same character, showing different personalities?
LA: No; I don't think
so. Personality aside, Manon of
Massenet has to act like a French girl, but Manon of Puccini
can act like an Italian. But you have to have the
voice! The Puccini is more dramatic, but you have to have a light
voice in the first act because she is a very young girl. In the
second act she becomes coquette and she believes that she knows the
world. For the death in the last act, in the finale they are both
beautiful. Really I loved both of them, but you
have to lighten the voice even in the Puccini when you sing the first
act to be really very coquette. You have to
imitate the French people. I don't think that I could
sing the Puccini Manon like I sang Butterfly! When you sing
Butterfly, you have to do it in a more Japanese way to become a little
girl. They don't do that now. They sing just
Puccini and they put a dramatic voice in for both Manon and Butterfly
— which doesn't require dramatic
voice. A dramatic voice becomes heavy, and will lose the
character of the personage.
BD: Let me ask another
balance question. In
opera, where is the balance between art and entertainment?
LA: Entertainment from
the stage, to entertain the public?
BD: Do you feel that
there is a great artistic achievement,
or do you feel that there is more entertainment value?
LA: No, no. I think
the opera is entertainment, but it is an elegant
entertainment. Certainly you go to the opera you go
to be entertained, no? [Chuckles] You go to enjoy the
opera, to think about it,
and it should be artistic.
When you don't have that, if you are not
really a beautiful artist to entertain the public, the public doesn't
care anymore for opera. To put how to do this in an artistic way,
when I used to go on stage, I always had in mind when, "Tonight the
public must be mine." You have to do for them. I always
thought I was a projector, to project on them in their heart and their
soul. One man used to come back to hear me so many, many times,
asked, "Why do you come to see me so many times in the same
opera?" He said, "Because you change how to act, you change
how to sing, you change costume, you change everything." That was
what I saw at La Scala when I was a student — I
artists change every time saw the same operas! That was the way
the opera was done! Pinza sang with me, and he never told me,
"You go away from
there, because that's my spot to come in." No! One night he
was on one side, and another night he was elsewhere. With the
tenors it was the same thing! We sang with Schipa in Rome and La
Scala; we sang together every year for five years. He sang L'Arlesiana, Elisir of Love [sic],
Don Pasquale, and then Lucia which I never sang with him
because I never
sang Lucia. Another opera I sang with him many times was Werther — I
was Sofia. But he never said, "You are in my place; shouldn't be
there," because we are taught to move, not to be in the same
place. Never! Later, when we came to the Metropolitan with
Mr. Bing, we got a little stuck! We got a little too stiff!
When you sing, opera singers must be free on the stage. Like
I told you before, if you are an actor, just go. They left
us to do what we wanted, to do new things, to do
this, to do that. Now you are not an artist, you
are just a salami. [Both laugh] Today they say, "Now you
to do this, you have to do that." Sometimes I
had to say to director, "Please, maestro, why don't you teach the tenor
or baritone to do this?" He said, "You can never do this
anything for their acting. I tried; I
had him work with me in the room." They could never do
anything. Sometimes, between us we used to talk about
the positions on the stage. Pinza would say [in confidential tone
"Tonight let's do something different," and I
would say, "You do what you want,
then I follow you." [Chuckles.] So we did.
[Nostalgically] Back then we were was
such a beautiful company, even on tour. We loved one another,
respected one another; we admired one another so much, and I loved
to see all these great artists on the stage. I used to go every
night at the old Metropolitan. We had our box near the stage, and
it was very interesting to see same opera
I sang. I went to hear other people — to
admire them, never
to criticize. If I was going to do
that staging, I was studying just by looking.
BD: And you learned from
LA: Yeah. In Italy
I learned a lot of staging, too, because I
had a private maestro for the drama. I would work on the words
then the music. Then we would work on acting — to
sing in profile, to sing with
your back, to sing in three-quarter as well as in the front. When
I attend performances these days, I wonder if it us just me because
don't seem to reach the public! Sometimes I say to myself [in a
welcoming tone of voice], "Come, sing for us here! It
doesn't mean anything if you don't reach us!" This is true even
if it was very nice. When the audience comes, we don't want them
to say, "No, I didn't like it, and I'm
not coming to the opera anymore." [Laughter] No, no,
no. If you
love music, you listen to many styles, like I do a
lot with Wagner. I love the Wagner music very much but we don't
have those great voices like we used to. You cannot
forget those people. If you are young, you don't know the
past. I know, and that's why I feel a little
upset about it because I think the artists don't
stop and restudy the opera. Every time sing the same opera
you have to restudy it, go over it to find new
things. You can always find things; you never stop
studying, never stop. If you stop, you're finished and you don't
BD: Is this what makes a
great opera — that you
can always find new things?
Absolutely. That's what they asked me, too, and that's what I ask
all the great artists, "How can you do new things?" It happened
to me every time; even on the
stage something new came, and I did it! I always say you can do
stage. You can sing with the head down, with legs up, or just lie
down, but you have to know the opera
so well, because if you do something new maybe you forget the
BD: What other advice do
you have for younger singers?
LA: I tell young singers,
"Don't sing under the
music or under the notes. Don't think this is a high note,
that's a low note; think of the words. Think what is the
meaning of the words and then you go into the character. You
never change the face! You have to keep the face, even when
your companion sings. You have to do something to show you
his words! You have to make some kind of
movement, but not do too much while they are singing. Just
something to say with the face that you are listening. But you
need to know why did you change
the face. Listen the music; just follow the
music, even if you don't sing. In concert, for example, when the
pianist plays, just
follow the music. Don't stop because then the face becomes
blank. You have
to remember that the public should be interested in you at every
moment. Even if you walk just one step, make sure it is on that
music. One movement
on that music; one turn of your body on that music. The music
tells you how to be an actress. That's what
the great conductors told us. If you move on the
music, you become an actor or an actress." That is how I learned!
BD: This has been a great
pleasure to speak with you! Thank you so much, and thank you for
all you have given the opera world.
LA: [Apologetically] Too
bad it is on
the phone. It's much better to look at me, because
when I talk I act, too! [Laughs] I hope to meet you
sometime. When you come to New York
you just call me. Good luck to you. Bye-bye
|Italian soprano. Born July 22,
1913, in Bari, Italy; m. Joseph Gimma (Italian-American businessman),
1945; studied with Emanuel De Rosa in Bari and Giuseppina
Baldassare-Tedeschi in Milan.
At 22, won 1st Italian government-sponsored vocal competition in a
field of 300 entrants; in 1st five years of career, sang at Teatro alla
Scala, Covent Garden, and the Rome Opera; when Benito Mussolini would
no longer let distinguished Italian artists leave the country, escaped
to Portugal (1939) and boarded ship bound for US; debuted at
Metropolitan Opera (Feb 9, 1940) as Cio-Cio-San; was perhaps the most
famous La Boheme Mimi of the 1940s; made final Metropolitan Opera
performance (1966); received the Lady Grand Cross of the Equestrian
Order of the Holy Sepulchre from Pope Pius XII; after retirement,
worked for Puccini Foundation, founded by husband, to further survival
of opera as art form; awarded President’s Medal by Bill Clinton for
work in the arts (1995).
Albanese was one of the most beloved sopranos in the Italian
repertoire, specializing in roles that suited her physical and vocal
appearances of vulnerability and delicacy. She specialized in Puccini,
and was associated with his Madama Butterfly more than with any other
role. Her vocal and dramatic intensity and sense of apt staging made
her performances riveting.
She first studied piano, but switched her energies to voice, studying
with Giuseppina Baldassare-Tedeschi. She won the Italian National
Singing Competition in 1933, and her opera debut, as Butterfly, was as
a mid-opera last-minute substitute for an ailing colleague at the
Teatro Lirico in Milan, in 1934. Her La Scala debut was in 1935 as
Lauretta in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, her Covent Garden debut as Liu
in Turandot, and her Met debut was in 1940 as Butterfly, beginning an
association with that house that lasted until 1966. She made the
occasional forays into heavier repertoire during her career, even
experimenting with the role of Elsa in Lohengrin in her early years in
Italy, but rarely added such roles to her repertoire, and being careful
with her performances of even such medium-weight roles as Tosca.
Towards the end of her career, she performed heavier roles such as Aida.
After her retirement, she remained active, leading the Puccini
Foundation (which she and her husband created), teaching master classes
at the Juilliard School of Music and Marymount Manhattan College, and
directing operatic scenes. In 1985 and 1987, she made cameo appearances
in Steven Sondheim's Follies. In 2000, she received the Handel
Medallion. The honor, which was bestowed upon her by Mayor Rudolph W.
Giuliani, is a tribute to individuals who have enriched New York City's
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on
February 26, 1988. A portion was published in The Massenet Newsletter in July,
other sections were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1998.
It was fully transcribed, re-edited and posted on this
website in 2012.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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