23 July 2020

Licia Albanese – soprano

Butterfly had a long career


Licia Albanese in her signature role as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly
Licia Albanese in her signature role
as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly
Operatic soprano Licia Albanese, whose portrayal of Verdi and Puccini heroines delighted audiences all over the world during the last century, was born on this day in 1909 in Bari in the region of Puglia.

She made her operatic debut unexpectedly in 1934 at the Teatro Lirico in Milan during a performance of Madama Butterfly. Albanese was understudying the title role and when the soprano became ill during Act One, she was hustled on to the stage to take over in Act Two.

She was a great success and during the next 40 years sang more than 300 performances in the role of Cio-Cio-San, the geisha who is better known as Madama Butterfly.

Her connection with the opera began early when she was studying with the singer, Giuseppina Baldassare-Tedeschi, who was a contemporary of the composer, Giacomo Puccini, and had been the greatest Butterfly of her day.

Albanese went on to appear at La Scala, Covent Garden and many other European houses, also winning praise for her portrayals of Mimi, Violetta and Manon Lescaut.

She was fortunate to have as tenor partners, singers of the calibre of Tito Schipa, Beniamino Gigli and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi.

Albanese made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1940 as Madama Butterfly and was an instant success. She remained at the Met for 26 seasons and also became a regular performer at the San Francisco Opera, although after the 1941 Pearl Harbour attack, performances of Madama Butterfly were banned until the end of World War II.

Licia Albanese pictured with the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti in 1973
Licia Albanese pictured with the great
tenor Luciano Pavarotti in 1973
In 1945 Albanese married the stockbroker Joseph Gimma, who also came from Bari.

The singer was invited by Arturo Toscanini to join his broadcast concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1946 and, in 1959, she sang with the New York Philharmonic during the Italian Night broadcasts from a stadium in New York City.

Albanese appeared in the first live telecast from the Met in Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. She was among the first generation of opera singers to have been recorded and to become available to watch on video and hear on CD. 
 
Albanese sang in La Traviata at the Met and the San Francisco Opera more than any other singer in the history of either of the companies and her career spanned seven decades.

Although she had a distinctive lirico spinto voice that was highly praised and was also said to have had wonderful acting ability, she was overshadowed by her contemporary, Maria Callas.

She became chairman of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, founded in 1974 to assist young singers and she conducted master classes all over the world.

She became a US citizen in 1945 and was presented with the National Medal of Honor for the Arts in 1995 by US President Bill Clinton.

Albanese died in 2014, at the age of 105, at her home in Manhattan. She was survived by her son Joseph, two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

The Torre Pelosa, the 16th century watchtower in the heart of Torre a Mare
The Torre Pelosa, the 16th century watchtower
in the heart of Torre a Mare
Travel tip:

Licia Albanese was born in Torre Pelosa, part of Noicattaro, which later became Torre a Mare, a quarter of Bari in Puglia, which looks out over the Adriatic Sea. A former fishermen’s village, Torre a Mare attracts plenty of visitors in the summer months, when its beaches, bars and restaurants are popular. Narrow streets lined with pastel houses lead to the main square, at the centre of which is the 16th-century Torre Pelosa watchtower. The district also has a 12th century church built in Romanesque style with a belltower.

The inside of Milan's Teatro Lirico during its heyday in the 1930s
The inside of Milan's Teatro Lirico during its
heyday in the 1930s
Travel tip:

As an understudy, Licia Albanese was rushed on to the stage of the Teatro Lirico in Milan to take over the main female role in Madama Butterfly in 1934. The theatre was built towards the end of the 18th century at the same time as La Scala, after fire had destroyed Milan’s only theatre. It was originally known as Teatro alla Cannobiana and was intended for the use of the general public,c while La Scala was meant to be patronised by a more aristocratic audience. Teatro Lirico had to close in 1998 because of financial difficulties. It has since undergone extensive renovation but its reopening has been repeatedly delayed.



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