Monday 26 February 2018

Saluting one of the 20th century's top soprano singers

Licia Albanese
Licia Albanese

George Hamilton

There cannot be too many opera buffs still attending performances at the age of 104, but one such was Licia Albanese, though to refer to her as simply an opera "buff" is to do her a considerable disservice. Licia was more than just a fan - she was one of the greatest sopranos ever to grace the opera stage.

Born in Bari in southern Italy in 1909, she was discovered by her piano teacher, and went to Milan to study, where she beat over 300 other singers to win the first competition she entered.

She first appeared in a professional production in peculiar circumstances. In the audience for a performance of Puccini's Madame Butterfly, she answered the call when the lead fell ill. Licia reprised the role as a fully-fledged member of the cast some months later, and her career was on its way.

A move to New York followed, and there she really made her name, starring at the Met opposite the great tenors of the day, among them Beniamino Gigli, at whose urging she had been hired.

She became closely identified with the operas of Puccini. Cio-Cio San - Madame Butterfly - was her signature role, sung more than 300 times. Mimi in La Bohème was another regular portrayal. As Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata, she set a Metropolitan Opera record with 87 performances to her name.

It wasn't just as a singer that she was revered. She was the consummate actress. Her attention to detail was famous. She'd visit hospitals to get a better understanding of the TB from which Mimi suffers in La Traviata. She took home the shoes that were part of her costume as Madame Butterfly to fine tune the action of removing them because Puccini hadn't provided enough music for that transition in the final scene of the opera.

There were lighter moments, too. In the New York Times some years ago, she recalled a performance of La Bohème opposite Ezio Pinza. On her deathbed as Mimi, she was aware of a very unpleasant odour, but played on regardless. At the end, the source was revealed when Pinza pulled a herring out from underneath her pillow!

Licia's involvement with the Met came to an end with the decision to move to a new theatre in the Lincoln Centre. There was a falling out with the management and no new contract.

The disagreements over the move to the Lincoln Centre - and a dramatic final goodbye on her last appearance at the old venue, might have suggested an archetypical operatic diva, but Licia would have none of it.

"Only God makes a diva," she once told the San Francisco Chronicle. "I'm just a plain singer with lots of expression."

Her break with the Met was by no means the end of her career. She sang well into her 70s, and sank a good deal of her fortune into supporting young singers. Her last visit to the opera was in December, to see one of her students make his Met debut in Puccini's Tosca.

Licia Albanese celebrated her 105th birthday last month. She passed away just over three weeks later, remembered as the soprano who brought Puccini's heroines to life.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am every Saturday morning.

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