Opera Singer, Licia Albanese, Dies at 105
Even after a career spanning seven decades, Albanese continued to perform occasionally. After hearing her sing the national anthem during a Met opening,Stephen Sondheim and Thomas Z. Shepard cast her as operetta diva Heidi Schiller in Sondheim's Follies in concert with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in 1985. During the 1987 spring season of the Theatre Under the Stars in Houston, Texas, Albanese starred in a stage revival of Follies, which was a great success.
Albanese died on August 15, 2014, at the age of 105 in her home in Manhattan.
Her popularity in La traviata was such that she sang more performances of that opera at the Met and the San Francisco Opera than any other singer in either company's history. Schuyler Chapin describes her as "a splendid former prima donna of the Italian repertoire, remembered by old-timers as the frailest Mimì, the tenderest Butterfly, and perhaps the most haunting of modern Violettas."
Her voice had a distinctive character which the Italians call a lirico spinto, marked by its quick vibrato, incisive diction, intensity of attack and unwavering emotional impact. During her career she performed with many of the contemporary greats of opera-Beniamino Gigli, Claudia Muzio, Jussi Björling, and Franco Corelli. She worked with some of the best conductors of her time, but it is her work with Toscanini that has endured. Despite her talent and numerous performances, she was not the best known of her contemporaries, overshadowed in her day by Zinka Milanov, Maria Callas, Victoria de los Ángeles and Renata Tebaldi.
Alfredo Vecchio, a frequent member of the audience at her performances, gave the following tribute to the career of Albanese at the Columbus Club, Park Avenue, New York City, in 1986:
Like all great artists, Licia's specific ingenuity as a singer, the originality of her art, lay in the fact that technique for this artist at least was always a means to an end and never an end in itself: for the salient features of all great art is the ability to connect technique to the emotions. Any other approach would have been for Albanese contrary to the musical sense with which she was born, contrary to musical training she acquired, and, if such exists, contrary to her musical morality. It was this, Licia's uniqueness and musical mastery which drew me, which drew us, into the world of Mimi, Cio-Cio-San, Manon, Liu and Violetta week after week, year after year, inviting me to a place and places I had never been before. It is for all these reasons that Virgil Thomson was able to write of Licia's first Violetta: 'She did not sing the role, she recreated it for our times.' As we all know, Albanese's art is capable of the widest range of effects from the tragic to the comedic, from dramatic repertoire to the lyrical and even soubrette: and for anyone fortunate enough to have heard her rendition of operetta pieces, she leaves no doubt in the mind that she was born to the operetta form as well as to the rest.
To all of her work, Albanese has brought passion and commitment, with her rich soprano voice, equalized throughout its range, thrilling in its climaxes. However, despite her repeated performances, she never fell into routine. As she explained in a 2004 interview with Allan Ulrich of the San Francisco Chronicle, "I always changed every performance. I was never boring, and I am against copying. What I learned from the great singers was not to copy, but that the drama is in the music."
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